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Is America Breaking Up With Thanksgiving?

To find out more about how people actually feel about Thanksgiving in general as well as their reactions to retailers’ new plans to open their doors on the holiday, we conducted research and found some surprising results.

Several major retailers made a splash in the news this year with their plans to kick off the Holiday shopping season early – by opening for business on Thanksgiving Day.  Many of the pundits reacted by insisting that retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, JCPenney and Macy’s are “stealing” Thanksgiving by opening as early as 6 p.m.  However, we’ve got evidence that the idea of Thanksgiving – at least as a sacred 12-hour stretch of family, carbs and football – is waning among key consumer groups.

This initiative on the part of retailers can be seen in one light as just one more facet of the changing cultural landscape.  Thanksgiving was historically a combination of religious feelings (giving thanks), extended family gatherings; and major multicourse meals.  As a society, we’ve become more secular, our family size has shrunk, and we are much more likely to be eating our meals on the fly. All of these forces of social change diminish the fit of the Thanksgiving holiday with the way that we live today.

To find out more about how people actually feel about Thanksgiving in general as well as their reactions to retailers’ new plans to open their doors on the holiday, we conducted research and found some surprising results.

First, our findings suggests that Americans do feel differently about Thanksgiving, compared to years past.  We found a significant decrease in the number of people who expect to feel a sense of nurturance and connection to others over the holiday. When people focused on how they expect to feel this Thanksgiving, the strength of expectations for these emotions was reduced by as much as 20% compared to past Thanksgivings.   We also saw a very marked increase in people who expected that they might feel somewhat isolated and disengaged on Thanksgiving.

I suspect it’s not that Americans don’t have the same emotional yearnings to feel connected to their loved ones and to enjoy family time.  It’s just that the secularization of our lifestyles, the atomization of our household structures, and the mobilization of our eating styles all militate against this holiday.

The Risk retailers take

So what about doing business on Thanksgiving?  We also asked consumers how they felt about stores opening so much earlier on Thanksgiving, and their perception of stores who might adopt this practice.  Here the results are strikingly polarized.

About 15 percent of the respondents don’t just like the idea of stores opening earlier, they love it, and they definitely plan to go shopping. These respondents were generally avid shoppers, most of whom (82 percent) say they were already committed to shopping on Black Friday, and three quarters of these consumers say they plan to show up at stores before they open.  The prospect of stores opening on Thanksgiving makes these people feel good. They get a sense that the stores understand and care about their needs as harried bargain hunters, and they feel empowered by these new store policies. Finally, they are thinking, a retail brand understands how important it is for me to save money and finish my holiday shopping effectively.

On the other hand, two thirds of respondents appear to loathe the idea of early openings. They state that they “definitely will not shop” on Thanksgiving.

It makes them feel unhappy and disengaged, even defeated. They feel as if these stores and the culture are working against them, thwarting their desire to make the holiday special and meaningful for themselves and their families.

So — retailers are rolling the dice. Are they better off opening early? Will they increase sales to those who would have already shopped on Black Friday?  Will the intensified emotional connection among these shopping enthusiasts translate to better brand connection throughout the holidays – or will retailers simply spread the early spending of this group over two days? Only the sales records of the season will tell.

The potential downside is that retailers may sour their brand connection with the much larger audience. And that’s a big risk: These people didn’t just have no emotion about Thanksgiving openings, they had very strong negative emotions. Will it be enough to turn them against certain store brands? Some stores seem to think so: Both Nordstrom and Costco, for example, have held fast to their refusal to open on Thursday.

Most likely, stores will make the call based on their own assumptions about core customers.

In the end, however our culture is changing, it’s important to realize that we love our families as much as we ever did, whether we are inclined or capable of gathering the clan together in one large group. Thanks to the scattering of American families, that reunion moment seems to be getting harder and harder to pull off.

We fulfill our need for connectedness in other ways. Chalk some of it up to Facebook and other social media, which allows us to connect to distant relations in ways we hadn’t before. Getting together has new forms. Who knows? Maybe we are closer to finding a virtual Thanksgiving.

Whether you headed off to Wal-Mart or not, we hope you had a great Thanksgiving holiday!

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9 responses to “Is America Breaking Up With Thanksgiving?

  1. There is too little data even to suggest the hypotheses mentioned in this article. In all likelihood, the extended hours increased costs for retailers without generating incremental revenue. We won’t have a real basis for comparison until we (1) can compare data for stores that opened versus those, like Costco, that did not, and (2) compare revenue growth against forecasts.

    Another interesting comparison would be to look at Paramus Mall in NJ. Paramus has Blue Laws barring retail sales on Sundays and Holidays, while most of the rest of NJ does not. We’ll see.

    For me, I did no shopping on Thanksgiving, or Black Friday, many of the promotions for which are scams. I don’t feel defeated or dissociated in any way. There’s nothing fun in shopping on those two days, at least for me. Others may have different opinions; that’s their prerogative.

    I do respect the meaning of the holidays, even if I am not necessarily a believer. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, the Winter Solstice all had some spiritual meaning at some point in time. I enjoy celebrating those meanings. If other people don’t, that’s their loss. I had an excellent weekend with family.

    However, and this Thanksgiving has nothing to do with this, I never shop at Wal-Mart and I do shop at Costco. I prefer how Costco treats their employees and believe that the Wal-Mart “low price guarantee” is pure farce. (In fact, I forced Wal-Mart to return half of what I paid for a Braun razor the last time I did shop there when I discovered that Wal-Mart’s own website had a much lower price for the product than they had charged in the store.) Nothing they did this holiday is going to win me back as a customer.

  2. Did you also ask those same people who were interested in shopping on Thanksgiving, if they would also work on Thanksgiving? Or did you ask people if they prefer a day off where very very few people have to work – a day off to relax (doesn’t have to be religious), be thankful for the wonderful world we live in, and take in a hike, do some outdoor activity? People need downtime, and there are several studies (especially in Europe) that show better production from happier employees when they have vacation, holidays, etc.

    So just because people said they are interested in shopping on Thanksgiving, I wonder if all sorts of questions were included in the research study. Would you work? Would you prefer a day off?

  3. Thanksgiving as an independent holiday has been struggling for some time. Many Americans use the long weekend to roll out the Christmas decor and start the Christmas season with the only nod to Thanksgiving itself being the traditional meal. This year I saw Christmas trees (note the plural) in windows the first week in November.

    Our society is very competitive and that is why mass marketing continues its existence. Very few of us want to be truly different from our peers, we just want to be a better (better being a relevant term). When you add income limitations and kids to the mix, its easy to see the motivation.

    From a marketing perspective, it seems, even with all the tools at hand, we still rely primarily on persuasion modeling to bring customers into the store. Scarcity is a motivator for many people and the “reward” of getting the deal is empowering for people who otherwise have very little control over their lives.

    The reality for retailers is that discretionary purchasing, whatever the day, is no longer a part of the process, yet it has long been a significant part of profitability. Before optimized metrics, stores used to have unique products; now every store looks the same and carries the same lines. There’s no need to browse and spend the day shopping. Even in clothing, you can look at the full range on line and narrow down choices, search for pricing, and size, so that you don’t waste your time going to a store that doesn’t have what you want and clerks that could care less if you shop there.

    While it’s true you can’t please everybody, using metrics to your advantage to provide limited product engagements for discretionary items that have specific audiences while keeping high volume items in stock does go a long way with customers, particularly if the store’s employees also are engaged with the products and customers. Take a page from the COSTCO book (as above and closed on major holidays/weekend nights) and and you could find a new version of discretionary shopping that works.

  4. @Ellen: Very well said. There are stores with clerks that do care (LL Bean for example) and that offer warranties that do differentiate them from everyone else. However, there are precious few of those, where shopping really can be enjoyed.

    I do suspect that the uber-rich have shopping experiences somewhat different from what you and I might experience. Retailers segment their service and give us the indifferent clerks.

    Curiosity: In retail metrics, where do Frangomints fit? This was a private candy product that the old Marshall Fields department stores used to offer. It was good enough to ensure a steady volume of foot traffic, and positioned in the store such that buyers would have to traverse several sales departments to get to it. Fields was making a profit on the candy, and the candy was creating sales in other departments. Do “optimized metrics” virtually preclude products like this? Is that what’s contributing to the boring conformity in retail?

  5. @victor: I had forgotten about those! Sears actually started the retail candy trend and it was a huge profit center for them for years (before everybody was diabetic or ADD). It was lure for kids and adults before the days of Starburst and Starbucks and when small amounts of candy could only be bought by the pound at the counter or at the movie theater. It was a treat.

    There was a big movement in the 80s to remove what was considered to be ” unhealthy lures” for kids from stores and morning TV. How the world has changed!
    Double stuff Oreos anyone? Now we just have unlimited access to “family size” bags in the kitchen.

    Seriously, manufacturers don’t depend on retailers to draw in customers to their products anymore. There are simply too many products on the shelves that are too much alike. It’s all about positioning and delivery. End caps are very valuable real estate. Consumers don’t shop anymore, they buy. It’s a destination, not a journey.

    Retailers also don’t want declining sale products on their shelves. That’s why a lot of iconic brands and even performing brands are dropped by manufacturers once their sales aren’t steady. There are “outsource” companies who pick-up and basically “ride out” brands that have been dumped by their creator until the sales are so low that they retire them. Calgon bath anyone? When’s the last time you had a glass of Tang? Mentadent? Twinkies?

    You have to have a A game to play today and loss leaders, low profit draws or “products with baggage” (like sweets) don’t have a home anymore. The good news is that it’s harder to get a bad/unhealthy product to market. Capitalism has always been a game of survival and only the fittest carry on but it sometimes is sad when societies are changed by the race to die with the most toys. Things always come back into equilibrium, it’s just that the equilibrium point shifts. 🙂

  6. @Ellen: one difference in POV that we have is I am skeptical that most large corporations behave as rational actors. They make acquisitions based on some thought or advice (?), run the acquisition for 2-3 years, losing money each year, and then sell it at a huge loss. I always think back to the old AT&T acquisition of NCR, but there are lots of current examples.

    Large corporations are inefficient. In the words of one ad exec, they are dinosaurs that bleed green. Advertising agencies and other consultants simply position themselves to with buckets to catch the green.

    Consider Coca-Cola, Oreo, and Budweiser. What exactly is the point of spending millions of dollars on brand advertising when unaided awareness is probably as high as it could ever get? If I don’t buy Budweiser (I don’t), there’s a reason, not an issue of awareness. Yet they spend the money.

    By the way, the new Twinkies are excellent. The old company management had cheapened the product to reduce costs. The revived product, to the extent that I’ve sampled it, seems worth the calories.

    Tang is widely used as a dishwasher additive in homes with hard well water. I wouldn’t necessarily drink it, but I have purchased it. (I can pay over $1000 for installation of a whole house water softener and have to buy and lug bags of salts for it periodically or I can buy 4 jars of Tang each year.)

    You’re right about the sales channel of course: manufacturers treat retailers as fulfillment houses, not marketing partners. Manufacturer ads are supposed to get consumers interested in buying a product; end cap placement is to make sure consumers see the product when they shop. In this model, the retailer goal is simply to maximize traffic, whether foot or online. As long as the consumer can find something to buy on every visit, they’re happy.

    I do disagree that it’s harder now to bring unhealthy products to market, (1) US food inspections are well below international standards. (2) Chinese subcontractors are notorious for swapping components in a product to make extra profit. They require detailed supervision. Some product managers understand that; some don’t. Interesting article:



  7. @victor – You are right about the lack of oversight with regard to inspections. I was thinking from the perspective of people reading labels and my experience in focus groups where high fat/sweet products had limited positive response. Consumers are much more aware of what they are buying these days. I actually have a degree in food science and technology and i can tell you first hand how poor food handling is in comparison to when i graduated and how limited the inspection process has become.

    Interesting about the Tang usage. I wonder just how acetic it is???

    In regards to the awareness, it’s amazing how fast a brand can fade without re-enforcement.
    Remember RC Cola and Orange Crush? Tab? Chore Girl? Ovaltine? Kodak? Budweiser is an interesting study because they thought the craft beer market was a fad and limited in appeal. What they didn’t count on was that it would open the door for foreign brands and that craft beer was become so strong regionally.

    Coke has spent a lot of money in emerging markets trying to garner business to offset their declining sales in US Markets and their failure to break the code on bottled waters and juices. The same was true for Kodak, an almost iconic American brand that was synonymous with our lifestyles and in fact, often the narrator for the American story. They had a tremendous amount of brand equity and constant ‘exposure’ (sorry for the pun) behind every drug, convenience store and grocery counter in America. It was rare not to see a store who didn’t have a visible Kodak product. The point is that every product requires treatment to stay visible, even if it’s iconic. The difference between a relic and an antique is often only in the way it weather’s time. The more universal the value, the easier the task but values change and thus so should products if they want to remain mainstream.

  8. RC, Orange Crush and Ovaltine are still very much around. Occasionally, I even see an Ovaltine ad on late morning TV. Kodak and Bud are more complicated. Kodak failed to respond promptly to the shift from film to digital photography. That kind of thing has damaged a number of technology giants over the past 50 years.

    Anheuser-Busch was acquired in 2008 buy InBev (itself the result of an acquisition of the Dutch company, Interbrew, by the Brazilian company, Ambev). Like Burger King (also Brazilian), the company has been refocused on growth in Brazil and marketing in NA has been restaffed. Some consumers have been screaming online about changes in honored brands. One reviewer characterized their Stella Artois as having evolved to “reassuringly typical.” Is that a compliment?

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