ECONOMY
4:10 pm
Tue November 20, 2012

Should Walmart Fear a Black Friday Backlash?

Walmart's Black Friday blandishments include a promise that, if any special discount item is sold out, eligible customers will receive it in time for Christmas.
Credit WGBH / WGBH

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the Walpole Walmart threw its doors open to the media and touted its readiness for what's come to be called "Black Friday" — the deal-drenched opening to the Christmas shopping season. 

"We have an incredible array of bargains here," a beaming Bill Wertz, Walmart's East Coast spokesman, told WGBH. Those bargains include a 32" flat-screen TV for $148; a $38 Blu-Ray player; and, perhaps most impressively, a $399 iPad 2 that also comes with a free Wal-Mart gift certificate worth $75.

In Massachusetts, which doesn't allow stores to be open on Thanksgiving, those deals will be available to anyone who's in line when Walmart opens at 1 a.m. Friday. Elsewhere in the country, though, they'll be available — but only for one hour — when Walmart opens at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. 

Black Friday: Now with More Thursday

That's the earliest the retail giant has ever pushed its Black Friday opening. And Walmart isn't the only retailer extending its hours deep into Thanksgiving Day. Sears, for example, will be open nationwide from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving; close over the dinner hour; and then re-open from 8 p.m to 3 a.m.

But for Walmart in particular, these new, expanded Black Friday hours carry a risk. Walmart workers around the country are planning a Black Friday strike to draw attention to what they consider unfair labor practices. The company has responded by filing a preemptive complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. 

If Walmart workers do walk out en masse, customers will have to decide whether to pursue extreme bargains amid labor unrest. It's possible that the thought of Walmart employees being forced to work while their Thanksgiving dinners are still digesting would drive some shoppers away. That, in turn, could hurt Walmart's bottom line on the day Wertz describes as "our Super Bowl" — and perhaps tarnish the company's image over the long term.

A Quiet Night in Massachusetts?

Today, Wertz said he doesn't expect any labor unrest in Massachusetts.

"The associates I've talked to are very enthusiastic," he said. "It should be a smooth night."

Wertz also said that most Walmart employees want to work on Black Friday. But two employees we spoke with called that description into question. Both said that department managers — the individuals in charge of a particular area of the store — have to begin work at midnight Thanksgiving night, one hour before the Black Friday opening.

One employee said she would, in fact, prefer to work on Friday rather than take the day off. The spectacle of aggressive customers packed shoulder to shoulder is too enjoyable to miss, she explained. But she added that — given a choice — she'd rather not start at midnight.

Keep Customers Satisfied

According to Wertz, Walmart's decision to push Black Friday further into Thanksgiving itself is a decision that was driven by customer preference.

"Last year, 10 p.m. was the most popular shopping time on Thanksgiving evening — and customers asked us to move it even earlier," he said. "We keep up with our customers' preferences with surveys and focus groups. And they told us, 'We'd like to get our shopping done and get to bed.'"

Apparently, the same could be said of some Walmart employees. We'll see in a few days how many of them choose to act on that desire — and what the effect is, if any, on Walmart's Black Friday business.

Tags: