Closed for the Holidays?

Consumers were shocked to find some retailers closed over part of the Thanksgiving weekend. Is a new trend emerging?

The shopper had assumed she could rush out to the major chain on Thanksgiving to grab a few last-minute items. But for the first time, the store’s doors were shut, with the chain explaining in press statements that it was responding to employee needs.

Corporate leaders whose businesses have long been open during the holidays are taking—or considering—some unprecedented steps this year. But it’s a difficult balance indeed, with the pressure to accommodate workers’ personal lives going head-to-head with business-world economics.

A surprising number of major chains closed stores on Thanksgiving Day this year, some for the first time. It’s an acknowledgment of the so-called purpose movement of the past few years, but it’s also a potential threat to profits. “It’s very hard for executives to navigate,” says Sharon Egilinsky, a partner in the Organizational Strategy and Business Sustainability practices at Korn Ferry.

The holiday season is go-time for many industries, particularly food and retail, as well as for companies whose fiscal years end December 31. At Starbucks, for example, holiday gift cards alone provide the chain with 10% of its annual revenue—and December 23rd is the biggest day of the year for gift-card sales. At Barnes & Noble, a third of annual business occurs during the last six weeks of the year, with the week leading up to Christmas Day racking up sales twenty times higher than average. Candymakers, too, depend heavily on the holidays, whose numbers far exceed those of Halloween, Easter and Valentine’s Day.

Yet many employees simply don’t want to work on or around Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s, and some are refusing to come in. The large companies that decided to close on Thanksgiving this year did, however, devise a strategy—beginning their Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales long before those days and extending them long afterward, and likely pocketing the same sales figures across the week. “They enjoy the shine of not bringing employees in on a holiday—and still make sales for the period,” says Alma Derricks, senior client partner in the Culture, Change, and Communications practice at Korn Ferry. This strategy can be particularly appealing, she says, for box stores looking to avoid tussles on Black Friday morning, which are known to generate bad press.

Experts note that behind the scenes, companies that appear to be closed on the holidays are likely still heavily staffed, with tech departments fully operational. “Stores may be closed, but the people making Cyber Monday happen are full on,” says corporate strategy expert Anu Gupta, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

There is one pocket where leaders have more leverage on this issue: in businesses that are struggling, particularly those, like legacy big-box stores, whose employees fear their jobs might disappear. Managers in those stores have little difficulty rounding up customer-facing staff for the holidays. “Those teams are not as focused on work-life balance—they just want to keep their jobs,” says Egilinsky.


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