Hmmm

The Ethical Sell

Last week, big box retailers were making news as they announced plans to keep their doors closed and employees off the clock on Thanksgiving. This string of announcements, bucking the trend from the last few years, which saw retailers like Macy’s opening earlier and earlier on the Thanksgiving holiday itself to give shoppers a jump start on Black Friday shopping, seems to be in response to negative consumer feedback to this new practice.

While these decisions may have an immediate impact on sales projections for the holiday season and benefits for employees — some of whom will even be paid for not working on Thanksgiving this year — the real motives behind the move by retailers may not be purely altruistic but rather carefully crafted marketing campaigns designed to earn consumer trust and win back positive holiday sentiment.

Retailers have long known that consumers can be fickle; after all, it was consumer demand that may have been what originally fueled retailers to push the holiday season ever earlier. Now, it may also be consumer sentiment — more easily expressed and gauged via social media channels — that is causing retailers to hit the brakes. There remains an appetite for earlier deals, deeper discounts and more special event holiday shopping promotions, but there is also a growing amount of holiday shopping hype fatigue being expressed via social platforms.

A report released by Social360 in 2013 showed that consumers were already turning on early Black Friday sales, with negative emotions mainly focused on employees having to work on the holiday. Another survey, this one from RichRelevance, found that 65 percent of the 1,000 American shoppers polled reportedly “hate or dislike” the trend of retailers opening up on Thanksgiving Day. Only 12 percent reportedly like it, according to the survey. That same study also found that a whopping 67 percent of shoppers find it annoying to see holiday items appear in stores early.

Statistics like this certainly play a role in the decision by retailers like Nordstrom to not only remain closed on Thanksgiving but go a step further and not even decorate for the impending holiday season until the day after Thanksgiving. Nordstrom has touted this decision to shoppers by posting signs throughout its retail locations stating: “We won’t be decking our halls until Friday, November 27. Why? Well, we just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time. From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving.”

This sort of message, prominently displayed, says to consumers, with a knowing wink, “the holiday hype — amirite?” As consumers roll their eyes at Christmas displays early in November and start to tire of holiday commercials featuring cars wrapped in bows long before Dec. 25, Nordstrom is there with them, essentially saying with its actions, “Can you believe all those stores that participate in shopping on Thanksgiving? So gross. We get you, shopper … You can rely on us to help you make a reasonable purchase — or, like, a bunch — on Nov. 27 instead.”

This kind of emotional and ethical-based concern from consumers and brands’ attempts to acquiesce to them are not reserved for the months of November and December. In this new era of transparency and authentic connection, fueled by the oversharing nature of social media, many retailers have been forced to take a new approach to hearing and responding to customer sentiment on social media. But hearing and responding to them with a clever tweet is no longer enough. Consumers want to feel like they have the ability to impact retailers’ decisions and affect real-world change as they passively quip from behind mobile screens.

Earlier this year, Target announced that it would be doing away with gender-based signage in a number of departments, including the children’s toy section. As Fortune reported, this move was directly related to a social media “firestorm” ignited when Abi Bechtel, a mother in Ohio, posted a sign from one of its stores that referenced “building sets” and “girls’ building sets” to her Twitter account.

All of the responses to this move were not positive. However, good or bad, the publicity put Target in the middle of a stirring and highly relevant public ethical debate about gender and identity and let consumers know that, as they try to grapple with these questions, Target was right there with them trying to figure it out. By reacting to consumer concerns, the company got to demonstrate that it listened.

But such moves by brands are not always met with a positive response. Even among the retailers which led the “we will not open on Thanksgiving” rallying cry, some have found themselves already coming under fire.

REI CEO Jerry Stritzke hosted a Reddit “AMA,” short for “ask me anything,” this past Tuesday (Nov. 10) giving members of the site the opportunity to ask him questions about “anything.” The hope was to talk more about REI’s much-publicized decision to not only remain closed on Thanksgiving and Black Friday but to pay employees for their time off and encourage them to spend the day outside.

However, as MarketWatch reported, early in the exchange, Stritzke came under fire for the company’s practice of penalizing employees for not meeting quotas for selling memberships. Stritzke did his best to dodge the questions and left many inquiries unanswered, which resulted in a great deal of negative sentiment, including this comment by a user posting under the name galactus_one:

“When you do an ‘Ask Me Anything’ be ******* prepared to answer the ******* questions, Jerry. This isn’t ‘sell my cool promotional idea on the Internet’ — you are connecting with a lot of real people with real questions.”

This seems like an apt warning for any brand who attempts to dip a toe in the pool of altruism without being prepared for the scrutinizing gaze it brings to all of its business practices.

This holiday shopping season, if all a retailer is doing is playing nice — essentially showing off to get temporary positive attention rather than implementing a consistent ethical stance into its business model year-round — that can be a game that consumers will suss out and tire of fairly quickly. And they might not return to some of those retailers next year.

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