REI started a Thanksgiving movement, but not every retailer is following

More--but not all--retailers are closing their doors this Thanksgiving.

REI has started a new Thanksgiving tradition.

More retailers are following its example this year and closing their doors on Thanksgiving Day. Citing the importance of their employees spending time with their families, appliance and electronics chain HHGregg and the Mall of America, the largest shopping center in the U.S., are among those that will give their employees the holiday off this year. Both stayed open for shoppers last year.

Many communicators are applauding the move—and some suggest it’s an opportunity to become a cultural thought leader on the importance of family, inclusion, and being thankful, particularly just after the divisive and contentious presidential election draws to a close.

After opening at 6 p.m. last Thanksgiving, Mall of America is giving its more than 1,200 staffers the day off, including those who manage its indoor amusement park and movie theatres. Although it has given tenants the option of staying open, Dan Jasper, VP of communications for the mall, says, "Our sense is that the vast majority of our tenants will take this opportunity to remain closed on Thanksgiving Day—something we are highly encouraging."

"As an organization, we want to get back to that tradition," he explains. "For the past several months, we’ve been discussing closing on Thanksgiving as a possibility, and the conversation continually came back to one point: it’s the right thing to do."

Jasper acknowledges it was a difficult decision to make because it will affect the mall’s operations and all of its tenants. Yet ultimately, the organization wanted to be part of a growing corporate movement towards reclaiming the day for families to be together. It revealed the decision first to mall department heads, then employees, its 520 tenants, and finally the media. It broke the news to tenants via email and hand-delivered letter.

"Although we came to this decision based on our very unique circumstance, it’s refreshing to look at brands such as REI and know that others are striving to do what’s right," Jasper explains. "It takes industry leaders like REI, Nordstrom, and Mall of America to turn the tide—and we consider ourselves fortunate to be among such esteemed company."

Last fall, specialty outdoor retailer and national consumer co-op REI closed all 143 of its stores in the U.S. not only on Thanksgiving, but also Black Friday, widely considered the busiest shopping day of the year. Its REI #OptOutside campaign encouraging families to enjoy the outdoors rather than shop was recognized multiple times at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The brand works with Edelman, among other agencies.

PRWeek reached out to executives at REI and Edelman, but they were unavailable by press time.

Jim Joseph, president for the Americas and chief integrated marketing officer at Cohn & Wolfe, says REI has become a model for not just retailers, but all brands encouraging "employees to take a break from this obsession with work that we’ve created in our culture."

"If you’re the kind of organization that is all about serving families and treating employees like family, it starts to make a statement about who you are as a company," he adds.

However, that stance may be diluted now that more retailers are closing their doors, contends Simon Shaw, chief creative officer at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

"It kind of feels like now that shutting your doors on Thanksgiving Day is a bit of a cop-out," he says. "Perhaps brands should be considering delivering an even clearer point of view on Thanksgiving through the lens of what is going on in the world."

Shaw says Thanksgiving could serve as a platform for brands on bigger issues, such as inclusion, cooperation, and goodwill. Yet so far, most of the rhetoric from retailers is that they are shutting down on Thanksgiving so employees can recharge and be with family.

"Retailers could celebrate what is quite a great story behind Thanksgiving of collaboration and culture enriching one another, not of building borders," says Shaw. "The story is probably more relevant than ever, whether you look at refugees in Europe or what is going on in the U.S. with the presidential election, or in Syria. Perhaps some of the brands may think beyond just shutting their doors."

He sees an opportunity for historic brands with an established place in American culture, more so than relative newcomers such as REI, to communicate about the holiday in a meaningful way.

"If they want to maintain their place in culture, they need to have more of a point of view," Shaw says. "That point of view may alienate some people, but it will make bigger fans of others."

Going against the tide
Sticking with its strategy of opening earlier every Thanksgiving, Macy’s said this week it will open an hour earlier than last year, at 5 p.m. Holly Thomas, group VP of media relations and cause marketing for the retailer, says the decision was based on "significant, ongoing customer interest." She notes it surveyed its store associates in advance.

"We are working diligently to staff Thanksgiving with associates who volunteer," says Thomas, in a statement.

Other retailers are rewarding staffers who work on the holiday. In addition to pointing out that they’re not forcing staff to work that day, retailers such as Toys "R" Us are reportedly adding employee discounts and bonuses for those who work Thanksgiving, as well as hosting parties and recognition events for them.

However, communicators say it is important for retailers such as Macy’s, Sears, and Toys "R" Us to fully explain their rationale for staying open.

"If it comes off as only a commercial decision, there is certainly the danger of backlash against them," notes Shaw.

Yet customer actions speak louder than words, particularly for publicly traded department-store brands, says Brian Yarbrough, a consumer analyst at Edward Jones & Company. He notes that even last year, when there was significant negative press and social media traffic about retailers that opened on Thanksgiving, crowds came out in droves. Yarbrough suspects data showed Macy’s and others that it is more profitable to stay open than pushing shoppers online.

"If we had the conversation a week ago, I would have said I thought the pendulum was swinging the other way [towards closing stores]. But it seems like Macy’s has changed that," he says. "Now that they’re opening even earlier, Kohl’s and JC Penny will likely match it because they’ll be nervous about losing that potential market share."

"As long as people vote with their feet, retailers will continue to open up, because once one does, others follow," Yarbrough explains.

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