By MARSHA MERCER
Shopping on Thanksgiving Day is a recent – and regrettable – trend, but there’s nothing new about retailers trying to maximize the number of shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In the 1930s, business interests persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to alter the calendar, and therein lies a cautionary tale.
By the tradition established by Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving was on the last Thursday of November, although there was no law. Starting about 1933, the National Retail Dry Goods Association began agitating to advance the holiday’s date to help spur sales as the country tried to emerge from the Depression.
Roosevelt finally agreed in 1939, when the last Thursday fell on Nov. 30, just 24 days before Christmas. He announced in August that Thanksgiving would be on Nov. 23.
The New Yorker explained that “Americans traditionally delay their Christmas shopping until after they have eaten their turkey, and when, as would have happened this year, the period is narrowed down to scarcely more than three weeks, the retail business takes a beating.”
Roosevelt’s proclamation applied only to the District of Columbia and federal workers, but it started a war over those seven days. A front page headline in The New York Times read: “Shift in Thanksgiving Date Arouses the Whole Country.”
Among the aggrieved were makers of calendars and schedulers of school vacations and college football games. Half the governors chose different dates for Thanksgiving, so people were perplexed about when to celebrate. The turkey growers, though, said they’d have no problem fattening up the birds a week early.
Indignant Republicans claimed the president had assumed dictatorial powers. (Sound familiar?) The mayor of Atlantic City said residents could eat twice – on Thanksgiving and “Franksgiving.”
The Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who later would popularize “positive thinking,” preached that it was “questionable thinking and contrary to the meaning of Thanksgiving for the president of this great nation to tinker with a sacred religious day on the specious excuse it will help Christmas sales.”
Citizens on both sides of the issue flooded the White House with letters and telegrams. From South Dakota came a letter urging the president to remember that “we are not running a Russia or communistic government.”
For more reaction, take a look at documents in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and the National Archives, including an article in the Archives’ Fall 1990 Prologue magazine by the late historian G. Wallace Chessman, all available online.
So, did changing the date work to boost sales? Not really. Business analysts said retail spending was about the same in 1939 as in 1938. In states with an early Thanksgiving, sales were more spread out; in late Thanksgiving states, spending was more concentrated in the week before Christmas.
Two years later, as confusion still reigned, FDR announced his “experiment” of changing the date had failed. Congress officially made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
That, of course, didn’t fix the shopping dilemma. Thanksgiving 2013 is Nov. 28, which means about a week less of prime holiday shopping. Many who work in retail will have to cut their Thanksgiving celebrations short and head to the mall.
More big chain stores are starting Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving, including Macy’s, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Kohls, JC Penney and the Gap.
So does opening on Thanksgiving Day boost overall sales? Not really. Analysts say it just cuts sales on the actual Black Friday. Last year, when a few retailers took the bold step of opening on Thanksgiving, holiday sales were up 3.5 percent over 2011. That was a smaller gain than in 2011, before stores opened on Thanksgiving, when sales rose 5.6 percent over 2010.
Retailers keep encroaching on Thanksgiving because they face ever stronger pressure from online merchants. And, let’s face it, some people do like to shop on Thanksgiving. They tend to be between 18 to 34, which is also the largest group of Black Friday shoppers.
Some marketing analysts predict that in five years Thanksgiving will be just another shopping day.
Enjoy your pumpkin pie while you still can – before galloping commercialism triumphs over tradition.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.