For nearly 20 years, my lovely wife Cari and I had a special Black Friday tradition. In the wee hours after Thanksgiving, she would get up at 2 am to stand in line outside a series of retail stores so she could grab the greatest bargains of the season. In the early days of this shopping tradition, the pre-planning was limited to the evening of Thanksgiving itself as Cari carefully reviewed all the ads from that day’s newspaper. One year I remember that she even used walkie-talkies to direct her sisters to different parts of the store simultaneously.
Then about a decade ago you started to find pirated copies of the Black Friday ads in the hidden corners of the internet if you knew where to look. Combining this now commonplace sneak peek with the ubiquitous cellphone, Cari became an honest to goodness tactical expert on Black Friday. She would strategically map out her entire post-Thanksgiving shopping assault. Cari became so proficient that she could hit eight or 10 stores before dawn.
For years I loved this Black Friday tradition. Cari would save us hundreds of dollars and would finish more than 75 percent of our Christmas shopping in one morning. Plus, the entirety of my critical role in this tradition was to let her get me out of bed Friday at around 9 in the morning when she was done shopping so I could say, “Terrific job.”
Of course, as we all know, just a couple of years ago retailers began launching their Black Friday sales on Thursday – on Thanksgiving day itself. That has led to a chorus of criticisms that these giant retailers are encroaching on the family time of their employees. Rather than allowing retail employees to stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday, there is increasing outrage that these big box stores are expecting people to work on what should be time for family and friends.
I have read countless columnists who have objected to this “immoral” practice. I have seen many a talking head on TV show deep concern and suddenly become self-appointed defenders of retail employees. Yet through it all, I found myself become increasingly uncomfortable. I am far more libertarian than most folks think, so I find it hard to get myself worked up just because a private business decides it wants to be open on a holiday. My discomfort isn’t about working on Thanksgiving, it arises from a far more fundamental issue.
So many of us claim to be appalled that retail employees are being asked to work on Thanksgiving. Yet relatively few of us are concerned that the median pay for retail employees is just $9.53 per hour. I am far less concerned about requiring people to work on Thanksgiving day and far more troubled by how little these hardworking people make all the other days of the year.
Of course, the most common response when the pay rate of retail employees is raised is to say that most people who work in retail are the young, so they should earn less. Indeed, in a seasonal community like Door County in which a significant number of tourism-related jobs are available for only a few months of the year, high school and college students are the norm.
However, that is very much not the norm when it comes to most retail businesses in America. According to a study by the Families and Work Institute, the average person who works in retail is not a teenager waiting to go to college. The typical retail employee is 37 years old, married, has at least a high school diploma, earns $9.53 per hour, and has no health insurance benefit.
When you consider that 15 million Americans work in the retail sector and it’s the second fastest growing part of our job market, there is reason for concern. (By the way, the fastest growing part of the job sector is in food preparation, an even lower paying job – but that is for another column.)
Now as I mentioned earlier, I approach the world with a fairly libertarian bent, so I am very uncomfortable with the idea that government can regulate its way out of this problem. The free market is the most efficient means we know of to provide the most desirable mix of goods and services at the least cost. Yet the fact remains that this still is a problem for our society. And we can’t pretend that putting public pressure on retailers to close on Thanksgiving will have any meaningful impact at all.
I don’t have the answers, but as I so often do, I look to the private nonprofits of the world to see how they are dealing with this issue. It seems there are two kinds of entities that are addressing this head on.
First, you have the charities that work hard to alleviate the suffering felt by those who live on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. It’s possible to live off $9.60 an hour if your expenses are low enough, but it leaves little room for error. Get hit with an unexpected car repair bill and all of a sudden you need to visit Lakeshore CAP’s food pantry (lakeshorecap.org) because you don’t have enough money for groceries. Get too sick to work and you’ll find yourself at the Community Clinic (communityclinicofdoorcounty.org) because you can’t afford to see a doctor. Charities like these are central to alleviating the challenges faced by those who live paycheck to paycheck.
Second, there are charities that work hard to help average folks become more self-sufficient. You can apply for a scholarship from the NWTC Education Foundation and expand your job skills and experience at their Sturgeon Bay campus (nwtc.edu). You can get help looking for job opportunities and interview coaching at the Job Center (wearehopeinc.org). These are just a few of the charities that are working to make people more independent and self-sufficient.
So the next time you’re shopping for presents, remember that the person ringing up that expensive holiday gift probably can’t afford to buy it for their own family. Then make a gift to charity to help make life a little easier for folks like the one who just took care of you.
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on December 5, 2013.