Billy Stampfl: Fixing Black Friday

Wednesday, November 29, 2017 - 12:14pm

Ah, Black Friday. It’s difficult to understate the intensity and pure insanity of the day after Thanksgiving, when millions of turkey-stuffed Americans rush out of their homes in the early morning to stand in line at local retailers, awaiting all the season’s finest accessories.

Except this description isn’t quite right. Many of these eager consumers actually leave their homes before the turkey comes out of the oven. Now, many stores open their doors on Thanksgiving Day to increase revenue. This comes at the expense of tired workers who are forced to spend more time away from their families on a day that is meant for gratitude. This doesn’t seem right.

Another problem with Black Friday? People die — they get trampled like Mufasa in “The Lion King.” Fights break out. Is this really what the holidays are all about? Does Black Friday have to be so dark?

No — it’s time we make some changes. With a few adjustments by the government and retail stores, we can fix all of these issues.

Reform #1: Force stores to close on Thanksgiving

First, federal law should require that stores close on Thanksgiving to allow workers to spend time with family and friends. While some may make the argument that many workers need the extra pay that comes from working on Thanksgiving, I think the majority of employees would prefer to have Thanksgiving off — and they would benefit from time with loved ones as well.

Of course, this is a debate that revolves around money. Earlier this month, USA Today published an article arguing for the economic benefits of staying open on Thanksgiving. As one would expect, there are many pluses, including increased foot traffic and (obviously) higher sales. The primary reason that a store should stay open on Thanksgiving, however, is the steep opportunity cost of closing; the company would miss out on tons of revenue, which would go directly to its competitors.

But what if we eliminated at least part of this cost by passing laws that require stores to remain closed on Thanksgiving? This might seem far-fetched, but a few states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine, for example) already have these laws. Federal legislation requiring that retailers give workers Thanksgiving off would allow employees a chance to be with their families, and it would lessen the economic impact on companies because every business would be held to the same standard.

Reform #2: Make Black Friday safe again

It is time we make companies liable for injuries or deaths as a result of the Black Friday store-opening frenzies. This is simple: No one should have to die over a $59 Xbox or a half-price flat-screen TV.

Overaggressive shopping behavior has produced many click-bait news stories that are as incredible as they are horrifying. In 2008, 200 people stormed into a Long Island Walmart, trampling and killing an employee. Three years later in a Target in West Virginia, a man collapsed while crowds rushed into the store. No one helped him — some stepped over him in search of bargains. The man died later at the hospital. As if these tragic tales weren’t enough, here’s a sign that we’ve gone too far with Black Friday: There is a website, blackfridaydeathcount.com, solely dedicated to keeping track of Black Friday deaths and injuries.

Of course, one solution is for shoppers to step up and be civil. But influencing behavior among a massive population of eager — sometimes desperate — customers is difficult; the more likely solution is for stores to be more vigilant in preventing Black Friday violence. Companies have myriad options: hire more security guards, install more cameras, work with local police so officers will be on-hand or only allow a small number of shoppers in when the store opens. These solutions are simple, and any executive who argues they are too costly should consider the costs of fighting a lawsuit resulting from someone getting trampled inside his or her store.

Reform #3: Expand Black Friday discounts to incentivize good behavior

Finally, let’s open Black Friday to more than just retailers. This should be a day of deals on more than just clothes and accessories; national parks, zoos and museums should also offer big discounts for entry on Black Friday. This encourages behavior that is generally beneficial to society and to people’s everyday lives. This idea was actually implemented this year, when various national parks around the country waived admission fees on Black Friday. We should use Black Friday deals in the same way we use taxes: to incentivize good behavior and discourage bad behavior.

These three changes vary in scope and difficulty of implementation. Passing a federal law that slashes profits and coerces consumers into staying home won’t make economists happy. Major retailers will be equally dismayed that they have to pay the costs of their customers’ egregious behavior.

But violence shouldn’t be a staple of Black Friday, as it is now. And workers shouldn’t be taken away from their friends and family on Thanksgiving. So it’s time we give these reforms a shot — before Black Friday gets even darker.

Billy Stampfl can be reached at bstampfl@umich.edu.