27 Nov 2013

Working on the Holidays

Economics 23 Comments

Apparently there is a growing backlash against big-box stores opening on Thanksgiving, with threats of boycott in the air:

The list of big-box retailers opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day is growing, and so is the list of consumers threatening to shop elsewhere.

Macy’s Inc. (NYSE:M) is joining the ranks of retailers offering turkey-day deals in 2013, marking the first time in its 155-year history that it will open for business on Thanksgiving. It joins numerous stores that have done so over the last few holiday seasons, with many opening their doors earlier and earlier each year.

Target Corporation…said this week that it will open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, an hour earlier than it did in 2012. Best Buy…and…Toys R Us Inc. also plan to open earlier this year….

Many workers — and shoppers — say they’ve had enough. On social media and online petitions across the Internet, opponents are sounding off, demanding that companies allow workers to spend Thanksgiving at home with their families. The word “boycott” is being thrown around routinely, particularly on Twitter…

First of all, in terms of rights, there is obviously nothing objectionable about organizing a boycott for any reason whatsoever, so long as it is truly voluntary and merely involves a coordinated effort to refrain from patronizing targeted businesses.

Second, I hate unbridled consumerism as well, and can’t believe people would want to do anything Thanksgiving evening besides pass out on the couch.

But notwithstanding these caveats, I think this outrage that we hear every year is oddly selective. For example, should all gas stations, highway toll booths, bus stations, and airports be closed on Thanksgiving? If so, that would prevent a lot of people from “spending the holidays with their families.” Even if your sole criterion were to boost the amount of time people spend with their loved ones, you would need at least some critical workers at their posts on Thanksgiving Day (at least the morning and afternoon).

Beyond that, my parents are in town and we’re planning on seeing a movie before our meal. Obviously someone is going to have to be working at the movie theater for that to be possible. But I don’t see any problem here; I’m not forcing that person to be there. He or she is presumably getting higher pay for working on a holiday.

When I was younger and worked at the grocery store, I used to love working shifts on holidays. You didn’t have to putz around the house awkwardly with your relatives for a long time, you would roll in when you were done with work. You’d still see everybody, you just weren’t there the whole time. And you got paid a lot more.

More generally, there are people who don’t have family, or maybe they get really depressed on the holidays and like to keep busy with work. It’s a great solution that they are the ones who will volunteer for the holiday shifts if the other employees would rather take off.

The marketplace is a vast nexus in which people voluntarily interact, with prices guiding their decisions. It would be more convenient for workers at Best Buy if everybody would concentrate his or her electronics purchases between noon and 5pm; that way the Best Buy workers could sleep in till 11am every day. But on the other hand, that would be really inconvenient for the shoppers if Best Buy were only open from noon to 5pm on a typical day. So that’s not what happens in the market.

We see extremes in either direction, too. Certain grocery stores are open 24-7, while certain restaurants might only be open for select chunks of time catering to lunch and dinner. Again, market prices and the implied profit-and-loss signals guide all of this, but ultimately everything is voluntary. An employee who is “forced” to work Thanksgiving night might feel like a slave, but of course this is not literally correct; he or she can always quit if it’s that big a deal.

The only reason stores engage in “Black Friday” (and now Thursday) deals is that this is (apparently) profitable. To repeat, I agree that such displays–especially the people lining up outside stores and then stampeding in–are absurd. But the critics often seem to me to overstate their case, and fail to understand that this is just a specific application of a more general framework, where they happen to dislike this particular outcome.

23 Responses to “Working on the Holidays”

  1. Ken B says:

    What are you doing to me Bob? I agree with every word.

    Well, I’m glad some government workers are off involuntarily.

    • Rick Hull says:

      Aw, I was gonna say:

      > Good point, Bob. But you used too many words so Ken B will find something to disagree with.

      • Ken B says:

        Too many words indeed. If Bob could only learn to leave out the mistaken ones, things would go much more smoothly.

        • Major_Freedom says:

          If only you showed all these mistaken words.

          That’d be great.

          • Rick Hull says:

            Yeah. Didja get the memo?

  2. JimS says:

    I care for livestock and never have a day off. I like working the holidays. When I was in the Marine Corps I would always take a family guy’s duty so he could be with his family (I was single). After a while it became a sort of tradition, most single senior NCOs would take the duty of whomever they could so they could spend family time at home.

    Now what I do when I see people working on holidays or off hours, I thank them for being there on a holiday, often tipping more or supply a treat, candy, food, drink.. I think if enough people show true gratitude for those who are in the booths, stations, theaters, etc., it will be a positve thing for everyone. SOund too flower childish?

    The big question is, will Doctor Bob post tomorrow?

  3. Matt M (Dude Where's My Freedom) says:

    I echo what JimS says. I guess I’m the single/lonely guy who couldn’t care less about working holidays. I gladly would, but alas, it’s not an option with my current job.

    I remember when I was brand new in the Navy at my first duty station, I had watch on the evening of the 4th of July. I was sitting in an empty office building at a desk, ostensibly making sure nobody came in and stole stuff or something. Outside I could hear the fireworks going off as everyone else was out enjoying themselves on the holiday. The guy I was standing watch with kept complaining about how stupid it was that we had to be on watch during a holiday, and while the watch we were standing was indeed very stupid, I actually felt kind of good about it. I actually felt valuable, in a “Hey, I’m engaging in a useful task during a time when almost everyone else in the country is partying.” There was a sense of satisfaction that went along with the whole thing.

    Now, I suppose if you’re a Wal-Mart or Best Buy worker who has been brainwashed by socialist propaganda into thinking that your job is useless and not valuable to society, and you consider it a waste of time that you only engage in for a pittance of a salary, then yeah, you’ll probably hate working the holidays too. But if you appreciate what you do and consider it useful, then doing it on a holiday almost makes it *even more* useful, doesn’t it?

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Good point Matt M.

    • JimS says:

      “Now, I suppose if you’re a Wal-Mart or Best Buy worker who has been brainwashed by socialist propaganda into thinking that your job is useless and not valuable to society, and you consider it a waste of time that you only engage in for a pittance of a salary, then yeah, you’ll probably hate working the holidays too.”

      True, but I think Walmart serves a useful purpose, at least in someone’s mind. If they did not, then they wouldn’t exist.

      I was just reading a piece in a local paper about how large brick and mortar retailers, Staples, Best Buy, are in mortal combat with Amazon. But the same could be said for the small guy who is squeezed out by Staple’s and Best buy. I like the little guy and patronize them, but feel no ill will toward the big guys that squeeze them. That is the market and it is a beautiful thing no more ugly than the fallen tree in the forest that becomes compost for the next generation.

      Bottom line of my ramblings, Walmart may not seem useful, but it is a model of market efficiency and the foundation of something that will eventually be bettered by someone else and that is useful.

  4. Cosmo Kramer says:

    1. depending on when you ‘have” to work, have a lunch or dinner family get-together.
    2. get a different job.

    -The people who complain the most are the people who have time to complain. Go figure.

  5. jon dough says:

    Bob Wenzel had this up the other day…


    From the post:

    Ryan Williams of Worker Center Watch said. “They’re protests held by professional protesters—oftentimes paid and given training—to cause a scene for publicity.”

    Seems the OUR people can’t get support from the very people they pretend to represent.

    Shameless hucksters…

  6. JH Laprime says:

    The problem with this article is that in many cases the worker is “forced” to work. They are told, privately of course, that their raises, promotions and future shift hours depend on their “flexibility” If they choose to be excused from Holiday, or even Sunday, shifts they are “not team players”. Yet, senior managers often have the time off with impunity.
    As to essential or critical workers, yes. Nurses, Doctors, Police, Fire have essential jobs and work on a rotating or voluntary, basis (“you knew the job was dangerous when you took it” Super Chicken). Toll booths could be shut down for a day to the public’s acclaim. Restaurants provide service to those who can’t or won’t cook for themselves. Cinemas can provide entertainment with a VOLUNTARY staff. But stores need not be open. I am fortunate to work for a large retailer who knows and accepts that an employee’s family environment is paramount to keeping the loyalty and gratitude of its staff. All morning I have received text messages from my superiors wishing me a happy holiday. In response I will be going to bed very early tonight to repay them with MY loyalty, arriving at my place of employment for a Black Friday early opening of 5 am.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      Senior managers have to answer to regional managers. Impunity? Maybe different strokes for different folks…

    • Cosmo Kramer says:

      They are “forced” to work and “forced” to apply to that job?

  7. Ken B says:

    The people complaining about big-box stores opening on Thanksgiving are the same ones complaining about the box stores providing competition for small stores, and Amazon providing competition for big-box stores. They never notice that they are really complaining about other people saving money. I hear it mostly from the very affluent.

  8. Ken B says:

    One thing I am thankful for is Bob’s honesty in allowing dissenting comments. Not all bloggers are that honest.
    Greenwald is a hero here, but some of us dissent. http://www.volokh.com/2013/11/27/understanding-enemy/

  9. Bharat says:

    I think a boycott of “big-box” retailers is actually a good approach. It’s true that there are 1) some people who like working over the holidays and 2) many who aren’t super happy about it, but value the higher pay they receive over the holidays because they’re desperate for the money. There are also 3) people who are in the unlucky position of having to work over the holidays in order to maintain their job, not because they need to earn that segment of pay for their holiday work, but because they need to retain their job. Finally, as you mention, there are also certain employments that are necessary for other people to enjoy their holidays, such as gasoline.

    The boycott itself has a lot of inherent balancing factors to it, that I think in practice will lead to a situation where most workers and most people are pleased by the outcome.

    The first factor is that the boycott is aimed only at big-box retailers. As you mention, if this was aimed at gas stations, it would clearly be counterproductive. Luckily, it is not.

    The second factor is that the boycott will earn some support, but will never practically earn unanimous support, or even near-unanimous. There will always be people that need something on a holiday that they forgot to get the day before, and it will be profitable for some retailers to stay open to cash in on these opportunities.

    The difference is that there will be less people than there were before shopping on Thanksgiving. A lower amount of customers will lower the amount of workers needed for the holiday. Now, the employer, when reducing his workforce can choose the allocation best fitting. Workers in category #1 and #2 will be the ones who would rather fill these positions, and thus more likely be the ones who do actually fill them. Workers from category #3 will be more likely to get the day off and spend the time or extra time with their families which they want to spend.

  10. Charles Hayden says:

    Seems like the market forces here are perverse and eroding away at our Thanksgiving traditions.

    For some businesses, even if they end up losing money, it makes sense to stay open to weaken their competitors.

    And if you think Thanksgiving serves some sort of public purpose, tax credits for businesses to close their doors should be considered, as well as tax credits for businesses deemed vital to stay open.

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