Thanksgiving is becoming just another shopping day as at least a dozen major retailers are planning to open on the holiday. It's further evidence of how little retailers value their employees. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

With retailers opening ever earlier on Thanksgiving Day and being rewarded with ever longer lines out their doors, it’s no wonder they see the holiday as a bottom-line bonanza that may benefit everyone — except employees who have to spend long hours at work and miss out on time with their families. Opening on Thanksgiving Day is yet another demonstration of how little retailers value their employees. That disregard is a natural result of the way most retailers view their labor force — a large cost that needs to be minimized. The result is millions of bad jobs with poverty-level wages, minimal benefits, very little training, and unpredictable work schedules.

Conventional corporate wisdom is that bad jobs are the only way to keep costs down and prices low. Otherwise, customers would have to pay more or companies would have to make less. But I have been studying retail operations for over a decade and have found that the assumed trade-off between good jobs and low prices is false.

Companies that go cheap on labor lose more sales and profits than they realize and can find themselves in a vicious cycle. In retail, overworked, unmotivated, or under-trained employees often cause problems, for example by shelving products where customers cannot find them or by leaving expired products on the shelves. Such problems frustrate customers and mean lower sales and profits. Lower sales mean tighter labor budgets, which lead to even worse jobs — and the cycle continues.

Meanwhile, a set of companies I have studied — including Costco, the QuikTrip convenience store chain, and Mercadona, Spain’s largest supermarket chain — offer their employees much better jobs than their competitors do while keeping prices low and doing well in all the ways that matter to any business — productivity, growth, and return to investors. They compete head on with companies that offer bad jobs in order to keep prices low — and they win.

For these companies, heavy investment in employees is not only socially beneficial but part of a competitive business strategy. They all share down-to-earth management practices that are not typical in their industries but that work well if pursued together with care, diligence, and commitment. They all follow what I call “the good jobs strategy.”

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

(Chris O’Meara/AP)

How do they earn back their high investment in labor? By making a set of counter-intuitive choices that reduce costs, improve labor productivity, and put employees at the center of company success. For example, while a typical supermarket carries around 40,000 products, a Mercadona store carries only about 8,000. That reduces operating costs and increases productivity; employees work more accurately and efficiently and are familiar enough with the products to be really helpful to customers. If you’re startled by such a reduced selection, ask yourself if you really need to choose among the dozens of types of toothpaste in a typical supermarket.

Offering less can also mean offering fewer hours to shop. Costco could open on Thanksgiving Day and draw plenty of customers, but has said that it won’t do that to its employees.

As we face the holiday shopping season, many people are thankful even for a bad job. But bad jobs are not necessary, even if we want low prices.

As we face the holiday shopping season, many people are thankful even for a bad job. But bad jobs are not necessary, even if we want low prices. Bad jobs are a choice that top management makes. Meanwhile, there is a better choice — better for everyone, not just for employees — that too few companies are making.

I would never pretend that offering good jobs, low prices, and great returns all at the same time is easy. The good jobs strategy is complex and requires the kind of long-term thinking that many companies tend to lack. But it is a workable and sustainable strategy in which everyone — employees, customers, and investors — wins.

When companies follow the good jobs strategy, everyone on both sides of the cash register has a lot more to be thankful for.


The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Lawrence

    I agree with this very informative article.

    I also see how the American public values merchandise, gifts and shopping more than precious time with family/friends.

    It’s the one and only day some families actually spend together in this way, and it’s amazing how even this day is thrown to commercialism.

    Line up for hours to save a few bucks on a TV?
    Stampede and crush others shoppers to their death for a bargain?

    How manipulated we Americans are when retailers dangle sale prices in front of our eyes. For what? Violent video games? TVs to make our society even dumber than we are now? Gadgets to make us even more isolated?

    Instead of buying “things” how about gifts from the heart? That you can’t purchase at a mall.

  • habinero

    Holidays should be holidays.

  • jtilbe

    As long as the American consumer is stupid enough to wait in line in the middle of the night, running the risk of being trampled, in order to save a few dollars then there is no hope that retailers will smarten up. We, the consumers must stop this nonsense by refusing to shop on Thanksgiving.

    But sadly, I have no hope that consumers will smarten up any time soon.

  • mikberg

    In every other country I have visited, checkout clerks at supermarkets and discount stores sit on swivel-chairs all day. Only in the United States are employees forced to stand all day. How can we get this to change?

  • Jan Dumas

    So just big box stores should remain closed? Because you are neglecting to mention the MBTA workers on the job today, the many police and firefighters working today along with the EMT’s and hospital staff. Not to forget the guy who spent Thanksgiving in a gas station, because it is a two tank trip to join my family. I would have been lost without the DD employees who made the many cups of coffee I needed to make that trip. While I use easy pass I noticed each toll booth I went through had a couple of people missing their families.

    Lets be honest here, you are not thinking about the families who are missing the Big Buy or Walmart employee at the dinner table. What you don’t like about stores opening on Thanksgiving and the number of people who line up to get “deals” is the crash commercialism on display. So please admit that is why you don’t want department stores, big box stores and shopping malls to open at midnight, and stop pretending you care about the people working retail.

    • rockhauler

      good grief, ma’am. there’s a huge difference between keeping the country running and appealing to the lowest common denominator. the situation may have changed, but in my experience, working on a holiday meant something extra for the employee, e.g. double-time or time and a half, or perhaps an extra vacation day. and it was typically the choice the employee made. now it seems that corporate america thrives on downsizing and extra work and hours, i.e. taking advantage of the disadvantaged employee – exploiting a valuable living and breathing human resource just because it’s possible to do so. once upon a time the valuing of a business investment included good corporate citizenship that included paying back to the community. now it’s take, take, take, and so many american people truly believe this is the most exciting way to celebrate our nation – camping out for days in front of a big-box store. when do people start to think and to realize they’ve been co-opted by corporate thought-control?

      • Jan Dumas

        It is my understanding that all those employees do get time and a half for working on holidays. Thanksgiving is a holiday so the hourly employees got time and a half. My point is people are more upset at the lines of people skipping a holiday that celebrates family togetherness to sit outside big box stores, many times as a family. The holiday that celebrates our nation is the 4th of July. We shop then too.

        • radish

          So the employees make 11 dollars an hour instead of 7? They must be so thrilled!!

    • Mark

      I hate to have to tell you this, but you know absolutely nothing about me. For you to assert that I (and others) care only about crushing rampant consumerism, and not the workers, is ludicrous. You’ve got a pretty good nerve to say that. At the time that this country started to dabble in having stores open on holidays I worked a retail job, so yes, I really am thinking about the workers. And, yeah, this includes police, fire, hospital workers, but we kinda, ya know, need them. They’re called essential services, and even though it’s rough that lots of those folks miss a holiday, it’s understood by them when they take those jobs that holidays are involved. And, they’re not working so some fat guy in a big chair can put a few more millions of dollars into his *private* bank account, while being paid next to nothing.

      If you have your ideas, fine, but don’t go telling the rest of us what we’re thinking, please.

  • lilee

    Corporations and consumers will be forever greedy. You can’t ask that people stop their greed instinct. The only way to stop this is to regulate it. That’s what government is for. Simply make it illegal to open on certain holidays. Period.