Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is America Breaking Up with Thanksgiving?

Several major retailers made a splash in the news this year with their plans to kick off the Holiday shopping season early – by opening for business on Thanksgiving Day.  Many of the pundits reacted by insisting that retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, JCPenney and Macy’s are “stealing” Thanksgiving by opening as early as 6 p.m.  However, we’ve got evidence that the idea of Thanksgiving – at least as a sacred 12-hour stretch of family, carbs and football – is waning among key consumer groups.

This initiative on the part of retailers can be seen in one light as just one more facet of the changing cultural landscape.  Thanksgiving was historically a combination of religious feelings (giving thanks), extended family gatherings; and major multicourse meals.  As a society, we’ve become more secular, our family size has shrunk, and we are much more likely to be eating our meals on the fly. All of these forces of social change diminish the fit of the Thanksgiving holiday with the way that we live today.

To find out more about how people actually feel about Thanksgiving in general as well as their reactions to retailers’ new plans to open their doors on the holiday, we conducted research and found some surprising results.

First, our findings suggests that Americans do feel differently about Thanksgiving, compared to years past.  We found a significant decrease in the number of people who expect to feel a sense of nurturance and connection to others over the holiday. When people focused on how they expect to feel this Thanksgiving, the strength of expectations for these emotions was reduced by as much as 20% compared to past Thanksgivings   We also saw a very marked increase in people who expected that they might feel somewhat isolated and disengaged on Thanksgiving.

I suspect it’s not that Americans don’t have the same emotional yearnings to feel connected to their loved ones and to enjoy family time.  It’s just that the secularization of our lifestyles, the atomization of our household structures, and the mobilization of our eating styles all militate against this holiday.

The Risk Retailers Take

So what about doing business on Thanksgiving?  We also asked consumers how they felt about stores opening so much earlier on Thanksgiving, and their perception of stores who might adopt this practice.  Here the results are strikingly polarized.

About 15 percent of the respondents don’t just like the idea of stores opening earlier, they love it, and they definitely plan to go shopping. These respondents were generally avid shoppers, most of whom (82 percent) say they were already committed to shopping on Black Friday, and three quarters of these consumers say they plan to show up at stores before they open.  The prospect of stores opening on Thanksgiving makes these people feel good. They get a sense that the stores understand and care about their needs as harried bargain hunters, and they feel empowered by these new store policies. Finally, they are thinking, a retail brand understands how important it is for me to save money and finish my holiday shopping effectively.     

On the other hand, two thirds of respondents appear to loathe the idea of early openings. They state that they “definitely will not shop” on Thanksgiving.  
It makes them feel unhappy and disengaged, even defeated. They feel as if these stores and the culture are working against them, thwarting their desire to make the holiday special and meaningful for themselves and their families.

So -- retailers are rolling the dice. Are they better off opening early? Will they increase sales to those who would have already shopped on Black Friday?  Will the intensified emotional connection among these shopping enthusiasts translate to better brand connection throughout the holidays – or will retailers simply spread the early spending of this group over two days? Only the sales records of the season will tell.

The potential downside is that retailers may sour their brand connection with the much larger audience. And that’s a big risk: These people didn’t just have no emotion about Thanksgiving openings, they had very strong negative emotions. Will it be enough to turn them against certain store brands? Some stores seem to think so: Both Nordstrom and Costco, for example, have held fast to their refusal to open on Thursday.

Most likely, stores will make the call based on their own assumptions about core customers.

In the end, however our culture is changing, it’s important to realize that we love our families as much as we ever did, whether we are inclined or capable of gathering the clan together in one large group. Thanks to the scattering of American families, that reunion moment seems to be getting harder and harder to pull off.

We fulfill our need for connectedness in other ways. Chalk some of it up to Facebook and other social media, which allows us to connect to distant relations in ways we hadn’t before. Getting together has new forms. Who knows? Maybe we are closer to finding a virtual Thanksgiving.

Whether you head off to Wal-Mart or not, have a great Thanksgiving holiday!

David Forbes holds a Ph.D. in clinical and cognitive psychology from Clark University, and was a member of the faculties of Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry and the Harvard Laboratory of Human Development before beginning his career as a business consultant. Dr. Forbes founded Forbes Consulting over 20 years ago as a strategic market research consultancy dedicated to creating business advantage through deep psychological consumer insights. Since that time, he has built Forbes into a major resource for scores of major corporations in the CPG, Financial Services, and Pharmaceuticals industries, domestically and internationally.

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