US retailers are starting to shut up shop on Black Friday

Staff who already work long hours for a pittance deserve time off just like anyone else

Andrew Dewson
Saturday 31 October 2015 00:25 GMT
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An extra day's wages are preferable to the revelries of Thanksgiving for some workers
An extra day's wages are preferable to the revelries of Thanksgiving for some workers (Getty)

The common perception is that Black Friday, the annual shopping frenzy on the last Friday of November, has ruined Thanksgiving. Ruined it for those unfortunate enough to work in the retail industry, forced to pull an all-nighter before their turkey and pumpkin pie has had a chance to pass through their digestive system. But it’s only partly true.

Shopping long before sunrise on Black Friday, a sort of American equivalent of Boxing Day, can be a strange experience. I know what I am talking about – not too long ago I worked in retail, stacking shelves in the wee hours every morning to make ends meet. The strange part is that going shopping at 3am in order to buy a half-price television is understandable, but it is just as common to see people mooching about with a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread in their trolley, a mind-boggling way to spend time that could otherwise be spent in bed.

Many retailers “ask” staff to come in at 6pm on Thanksgiving to get the store open well before midnight. They aren’t really asking of course, they’re telling. Walmart, the largest American retailer, will open most stores all day on Thanksgiving, meaning its staff will have to work even harder to make their “Welcome to Walmart” greeting sound genuine. Walmart won’t have much competition for the Thanksgiving noon crowd, but by early evening many big-box stores will open their doors.

The downside, employees forced to work when others are arguing with their families, is obvious, so has fuelled a growing backlash against Black Friday. The annual video footage of people fighting over discounted electronics while terrified staff look on is taking its toll; more and more consumers are giving it a miss and that fact is not going unnoticed in the retail industry.

Staff who already work long hours for a pittance deserve time off just like anyone else, but more importantly the retailers themselves are finding it harder to justify the expense, planning and bad publicity. Piling loss-leading items high and selling them cheap once brought in loyal customers – nowadays it’s more likely to be one-off bargain hunters. Margins at retailers are thin enough as it is, and even Walmart can’t compete effectively with online-only retailers.

However good the backlash makes people outside the retail industry feel, there is another side to the story. Giving staff a day off is one thing if you’re going to pay them for it, but very few retailers do and it will be a cold day in hell before most big-box retailers give shelf-stackers and till operators a paid day off.

Working on Thanksgiving is a chance for millions of low-paid Americans to earn a little extra ahead of Christmas, and many of them are grateful for the opportunity to earn time-and-half without having to play nice with the family. Most have family spread far and wide and, besides, the saccharine Hollywood version of Thanksgiving is bunk. In my experience, there are just as many retail staff who look forward to working on Black Friday or even on Thanksgiving as don’t.

REI, the outdoors retailer that this week announced it would not open at all on Black Friday and instead will give staff a paid day off, is very much an exception. As a private company that is not beholden to public markets and Wall Street, it can afford to be generous and remain true to its outdoors ideals. But for the overwhelming majority of retail workers, a day with the store closed is a day without wages.

The growing number of stores that don’t open on Thanksgiving and scale back Black Friday operations would like us to think that it is a magnanimous act with their staff’s wellbeing at its heart. For some small retailers that might be true, but for most it’s a more prosaic matter of profits and, as usual, underpaid workers are stuck in the middle.

LinkedIn may not be sexy, but it’s got star quality

When it comes to hot tech companies, professional networking and recruitment platform LinkedIn rarely gets a mention. That’s partly because although everyone knows they need to be on it, very few people actually know why, and partly because networking just isn’t that sexy compared to teenagers swapping selfies or, apparently, hailing cabs.

However, third-quarter results this week show that LinkedIn should be considered a star among its peers because it is actually exceeding expectations rather than turning out to be a lot of fluff. Out of all of the high-profile tech stocks, LinkedIn has turned out to be a really solid investment, giving punters an average return of about 25 per cent per year since the company went public in 2011.

Before we get too carried away, it’s worth remembering that LinkedIn is still making a loss – in fact it posted a loss ten times higher than it did in the same period last year, although much of that was down to one-off expenses. Third-quarter revenue rose by 37 per cent to $779.6m and without those exceptional losses the company would have earned $0.78 per share, almost 70 per cent more than Wall Street analysts expected.

Where other tech stocks are still very much jam tomorrow, and pretty runny jam as it turns out, LinkedIn has consistently under-promised and over-delivered. With a market capitalisation of just over $27bn LinkedIn is, by any standard, still richly valued. However, by turning the platform and its user base into an indispensable tool for the recruitment industry and making small but effective acquisitions, LinkedIn is turning into a blueprint for sensible tech management.

Unlike several of its peers, it has also been a model of stability. Its co-founder and chairman, Reid Hoffman, remains very much involved and chief executive Jeff Weiner has been at the company seven years, a veritable aeon in modern Silicon Valley terms. Much more of this and perhaps LinkedIn might finally get the respect it deserves.

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