Is It Ethical for Stores to Be Open on Thanksgiving?

When I was growing up it wasn’t even really a question: Should stores be open on Thanksgiving?

The very idea of being open on Thanksgiving was ridiculous – at least unless you were a store that people might rely on for the day. Say a gas station or a grocery store – and even those generally had very limited hours. But as Black Friday (and more recently Cyber Monday) have taken off, the competition has become more fierce and we see more stores open on Thanksgiving.

It’s become such a controversial issue that we now see lists online of stores that will be open or closed on Thanksgiving, and even calls for boycott against those that are open.

Even the other day, a colleague of mine posted an article about stores being open on Thanksgiving, and my knee-jerk reaction was “boo!” But then it got me thinking a bit more. Is it ethical for stores to be open on Thanksgiving? Even more so, is it potentially unethical to be closed?

Like anything in life, there is no easy answer, but there are a few things to think about as you consider the decision.

What kind of store?

Like I said before, some stores offer items that people actually might rely on for the day. A grocery store is a perfect example. I know my local grocery will be open, albeit for limited hours (7 am-2 pm). As a member of the community, it would be unwise for them not be be open. On the day for which we spend nearly $3 million each year on food alone and that basically revolves around eating, you want to make sure you’re available to save the day if anyone forgets the cranberry sauce.

So an important question to ask about if a store should be open on Thanksgiving is this: Is it arguably important to society for the store to be open? Do they provide a valuable service that actually enhances the holiday?

Is It Fair to the Employees?

This is a tricky one. Most people will argue that to be open on Thanksgiving means you are forcing your employees to work when they should instead be taking time off to enjoy the day, connect with family, etc. But that’s making the assumption that everyone wants that – and frankly, not everyone does.

Although it’s not a religious holiday, it’s still one that many people do choose not to celebrate. Be it that they have no family around to spend time with, or that they simply don’t care, is it then wrong to force them not to work?

Then there are the people who rely on the money. Being closed on any specific day means less money for hourly workers. Salaried workers get the day as a paid holiday usually, but hourly workers don’t – and as we go into the holiday season we often see people more anxious about money. Is a store doing a disservice to employees by not offering this opportunity for income?

One can also argue that if you are open, and you can’t rely merely on people who volunteer to come in that day to make up enough of a staff, that you should pay holiday/overtime rates. While this may make it slightly more ethical to make people work, you’re assuming that time away from family can be just paid for with extra money – and for a lot of people, family is more important.

Should People Be Encouraged to Shop Instead of Have Family Time?

For a long time, Thanksgiving has been considered one of, if not, the most important days for family in any given year. It’s a holiday specifically for family and friends to get together and give thanks for everything good in their lives – including each other. A time of reflection.

When stores are open on Thanksgiving, particularly those who are looking to get a few extra dollars in advance of Black Friday, you are in essence luring people away from their families. Obviously the decision as to if they shop or not is up to them, but you are forcing people to make a cost/benefit analysis of saving money vs. spending time with family. Is this something brands really want to consider? Is it a fair question to force people to make a decision about?

With as commercial and gift-focused as the Christmas season has become, consumers have been trained to battle to put the most and best presents under the tree – and that puts additional financial strain on a family. So any big sales on Thursday are especially tempting to those on a budget – and let’s be honest, the people working the longest hours and having the least time with family every other day of the year are those people who are working their butts off to make ends meet. They are often the target audience of being open on Thanksgiving.

Is that a morally right thing to do? Or should it wait until Friday?

How Does Being Open Reflect a Brand?

As all the lists of who’s open and closed on Thanskgiving, as well as the groups calling for boycotts of Thanksgiving shopping proliferate, it’s clear that the question of being open or closed on Thanksgiving is now beyond a question of right or wrong – it’s also a question of how a brand wants to represent itself.

Bargain store? Maybe you want to be open and have blowout sales – it’s part of your value proposition.

Family-friendly company? Stay closed. Put out a press release about it. Tell everyone how great it is that you’re not open.

You can even go the extra step and be closed on Friday, pay your employees, and tell everyone about it. REI’s “Opt Outside” campaign is a perfect example of how to go against the grain, make a big deal of it, and tie it to your brand. Sure they will lose some potential sales, but it’s a tradeoff – and one that seems to pay off in spades with good publicity.

Besides, they still have their online store… so they’re not really closed.

Combating Online Competition?

This is the big question. When stores are closed on Thanksgiving (or any holiday) are they really closed? Not if they have an online presence. Leading up to the holiday it’s easy to get all your promotions scheduled and let the store basically run itself with no one around (while the computers do all the work). This gives online stores an advantage on Thanksgiving over regular brick and mortar shops. People who want to shop, can. It’s a great opportunity to run some sales to grab some share of wallet before people even head out to the stores the next day.

But when you’re competing against the online competition, this is where things can get hairy. They’re open, you’re not. And those are lost sales opportunities. If you don’t have an online presence, you really don’t have a way to combat this. So then the question arises – should you be open so you can compete?



It’s a tricky space to be in, if you’re a brand or store. And as said before, there’s no clear answer. It all depends on what’s important to you. Is it sales? Is it brand perception? Is it the concept of family time? You may need to weigh these things carefully – whether you’re a consumer or a store.

As a consumer, if you visit a store that’s open on Thanksgiving, are you being unethical? Does your behavior encourage the stores to be open, thereby encouraging behavior by stores that you personally find objectionable? After all, we all vote with our wallets.

So what is it? Are you open or closed on Thanksgiving? Do you plan to go out and do any shopping?

Or are you going to just sit around and enjoy life for a day?

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2 thoughts on “Is It Ethical for Stores to Be Open on Thanksgiving?

  1. I struggle with this. What about the movie theaters? People say watching a movie is family bonding. Why isn’t shopping? During a movie we’re quiet, eyes on a screen. While we shop, we chat, we interact. If anything, shopping is certainly more socialable than watching a movie. I agree it’s important for some of the stores that offer grocery items to be open. Do department stores need to be? I’m not sure. They seem to open earlier and earlier. Maybe go back to the 2AM openings … then it’s technically Black Friday.

    We have to remember the people who provide us service who are there no matter what. The police, hospitals, firefighters. They work 365.

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