“Twelve million unemployed in this country. People should consider themselves lucky to have jobs.”
This story first appeared in the October 29, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
So offered a WWD colleague imagining the general mind-set of corporate America regarding its workforce. He made the remark in a meeting on Friday, a daily sit-down during which we review the day’s paper and discuss the next day’s tentative lineup. The trigger topic was Lord & Taylor’s decision to open for business on Thanksgiving Day. This led to a hearty discussion on the pros and cons of hawking high-end merch on probably the most widely celebrated of U.S. holidays.
Retail editor David Moin broke the story, including a source’s assertion that “Lord & Taylor wouldn’t do it if they didn’t have the associates to volunteer.” So did Lord & Taylor engage an independent research house to survey those employees most likely to be impacted? To my colleague’s 12-million unemployed point, in this economic climate, if the honchos had hit the selling floor and stockroom in search of volunteers to man high-end umbrella stands on the West Side Highway during today’s storm, chances are excellent they’d have found them.
I understand working on holidays. As an ob-gyn in single practice, my father was on call every holiday of his working life, and missed many a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. His absence was essential. (The nobility of purpose didn’t make the holiday any easier on his wife, the mother of seven.) Ditto all of the healthcare workers, cops, firemen, daily media and other essential service providers who will report to work on Thanksgiving.
Nonessential services and entertainment enterprises have a long history of operating on holidays as well. Restaurants, hotels, museums, movie theaters, Broadway, the NFL, they’re all open for duty. While their employees must clock in at the expense of their own family/friends/whatever time, at least, from the consumer standpoint, the end purpose is about something other than wanton commercialism. The same can’t be said about shopping, the social element of collateral consideration at best.
Lord & Taylor is hardly the first retailer to open for business on holidays. Drug, grocery and convenience stores have long done so. Last year, so too did Wal-Mart and Kmart. In those cases, executives could claim necessary consumer service as their primary motivation — “Oops! Forgot the cranberry sauce!” — even if once upon a time, people had to remember what they’d forgotten a day earlier.
Gap Inc., too, preceded Lord & Taylor’s cross over to the dark side when various of its concerns conducted Thanksgiving business last year. And Macy’s opened its doors at midnight on Black Friday. At least that afforded time for non-parade duty employees to enjoy the turkey fest, engage (or not) in family political feuds, watch football, clean the kitchen and take a rest before heading out to work. (David told me that years ago he asked Macy’s then-chairman Ed Finkelstein if he would consider opening on Thanksgiving to monetize the parade crowds; Finkelstein said that would be disrespectful to his employees.)
Business remains tough. Retailers faced with the hard reality of making their numbers constantly refine and intensify their strategies. And surely, if you open it, they will come, from nonobservant tourists to those seeking novelty, an uncrowded store or a shot at a 10-second spot on NY 1. Still, there’s something perversely let-them-eat-cake about one of New York’s lauded high-end flagships making so drastic a move that sets disturbing precedent for others.
It’s about greed. Period. Not that greed is all bad. Just about everyone affiliated with the fashion industry buys into the virtues of greed to some degree. If greed didn’t percolate amply, I wouldn’t be here writing this, you wouldn’t be there reading it, and fashion and luxury as we know them wouldn’t exist.
But one would hope within that reality exists a twinge of respect — genuine respect, not cursory or mandated — for the working population. Labor unions rose to great power in this country for one reason — abusive employers. While one cannot compare “volunteer” holiday duty to working under unsafe conditions and with no job security, etc., it indicates a management psyche indifferent to the human side of employment. On the day once set aside to celebrate the labor force, shopping has become as ingrained an option as a backyard picnic or hitting the beach. Now Thanksgiving. Office employees — finance, sales, dentist, p.r., you name it — won’t clock in on Thanksgiving; the suggestion would appall (at least for now). How did service employees, particularly those in retail, get segregated into a working class not entitled to holidays? Never mind that on the very next day, they will enter the most hectic, stressful month of their employment year, of late with newly extended hours.
Western literature’s most renowned telling of employee abuse focuses on the misfortune of a poor, intimidated bookkeeper forced to work on Christmas Day. His nasty boss’ mind-set impacts not only Bob Cratchit, but the whole Cratchit clan.
As a society, we’ve crossed over to Ebenezer-ville with barely a murmur. In our Friday meeting, some editors took to explaining why a retailer might want to open on Thanksgiving. I get it; the aforementioned numbers, numbers, numbers. Even given that motivation, there’s no reason for brick-and-mortar underwear shopping on Thanksgiving; if Aunt Mary works your nerves, retire to your room and shop online.
The decision by fashion retailers and other purveyors of purely discretionary goods to open on Thanksgiving suggests a shocking want of respect for its most important employees, those in the trenches who work and support the selling floor. In the pre-reformation jargon of that famous holiday-hater, it’s a humbug of an attitude.