Opinion

JOANNA WEISS

No deal on Black Friday shopping

Retailers are preparing for this year’s Black Friday and the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle via AP

Retailers are preparing for this year’s Black Friday and the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

It’s just about time for that annual American tradition.

You know the one: when we actually care about retail workers.

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Some of us do, at least. As more stores open on Thanksgiving day, and more workers are forced to leave their families, we’re seeing the usual protests: Change.org petitions, lists of good stores (still closed on Thanksgiving) and bad stores (open before the turkey cools).

In Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island, blue laws bar most stores from opening on Thanksgiving — one vestige of Puritan culture that’s still worth celebrating. Elsewhere, folks will heed the siren song of bargains and go to Staples or Walmart or Target after dinner, perhaps to save $40 on a paper shredder or get a Disney Snow Glow Elsa doll for $28.88.

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Given that Black Friday is a dying concept anyway, there’s even less reason to for shoppers to join the stampede — and more reason for stores to show some restraint. Instead, some are opening even earlier this year.

“It is a sign of how little [stores] care about their employees and their employees’ lives,” said Zeynep Ton, who teaches operations management at the MIT Sloan School of Business. “And it’s, I think, part of the whole picture of just seeing their people as a cost, and not realizing that these are human beings who have lives.”

In a season that’s supposed to be about empathy, it’s worth thinking about that context: Daily life, outside the Thanksgiving spotlight, for a group of American workers that is trying to play by the rules, at companies whose goal is to keep labor costs as low as possible.

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There are about 15 million retail workers in the United States. Roughly 20 percent of them work for big box stores — the type most likely to succumb to Black Friday-creep — often for low wages, scant benefits, and part-time hours.

Time-management technology makes those indignities worse, said Stephanie Luce, who teaches labor studies at the City University of New York. Software now can pinpoint the precise amount of bare-minimum staffing a store needs, sometimes down to 15-minute increments, she said. To maximize efficiency, stores post their employees’ schedules mere weeks in advance — and often force workers to submit schedule-change requests to their managers, on paper.

Good luck to anyone who needs to schedule child care or a second job, or is trying to go back to school. Self-reliance is thwarted at every turn. And in a tight labor market, workers have little leverage. Unionization, in the sales sector, hovers around 3 percent. And as Luce points out, workers who don’t trust that they’ll have their jobs for long aren’t likely to put in the work it takes to organize.

Retail executives will throw up their hands and say they’re driven by demand: the low-price arms race, combined with the American impulse to shop at every humanly possible moment, plus the pressure from shareholders to show short-term growth, regardless of long-term effects. Around Thanksgiving every year, CEOs issue cheery statements declaring that employees are thrilled at the chance to earn holiday pay and pick up extra hours — which, as Luce notes, should be measured against the fact that they’re underworked and underpaid, and fear they’ll lose their jobs if they don’t say “yes.”

The frustrating thing is that it’s actually quite possible to make money, offer low prices, and treat workers with dignity. Ton studies companies that use what she calls a “good jobs strategy,” such as Costco and Trader Joe’s. (Both are closed on Thanksgiving.) These stores tend to pay more, but that’s not their only secret. They empower employees to make decisions. They cross-train workers, so people can stock shelves and work the cash registers, depending on the needs inside the store. That means consistently better service for customers, too.

Which brings us back to the shoppers, the bargain hunters, the bulk of us — who pay low prices consistently, and deserve some of the blame. How much would we be willing to sacrifice, ourselves?

Luce has studied retail wages. She found that if Walmart raised its pay to $12.50 per hour for all of its associates, nationwide — and all of that were passed onto consumers — the average Walmart shopper would pay an extra $12 a year.

Roughly 20 percent of retails workers are employed by big box stores — the type most likely to succumb to Black Friday-creep.

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Really, that’s a bargain. And something to think about. Year-round.

Related:

Jennifer Graham: A liberal’s conservative Christmas

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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