Is 24 hour, 365 day a week shopping a sign of progress?

Recently a reader asked whether economic growth was increasing living standards and why economic growth was not leading to more leisure time in developed economies. – Is economic growth necessary?

Not only is leisure time not increasing, but it is becoming more common for ‘special holidays’ to become just another retail day.

In the US, stores used to be closed for the whole of Thanksgiving – an important national holiday. Traditionally a time for families to spend time together. However, the day after Thanksgiving is such a retail bonanza that shops are moving opening times earlier and earlier. Now, big stores like Walmart, Gap  and Target are opening on Thanksgiving – hoping to benefit from the earliest rush of consumer spending. From a business perspective, it makes sense to capitalise on this boom in retail sales. Shops which stay closed on Thanksgiving missed out on this surge in retail sales. But, the extra time for shopping  comes at the cost of workers being pressured to work on national holidays and miss an important chance to spend time with their families.

Companies may point to the fact that some workers don’t mind working on national holidays, and are grateful for the opportunity to earn overtime. However, labour unions argue this ignores the reality that most workers would like to spend time with their family, but feel no alternative but to work.

A worker for Target, Casey St Claire, organised a petition to stop the store opening on Thanksgiving. She said:

“Every year the opening gets earlier and earlier. Before long, we will be open all day on Thanksgiving,” she said. “Thanksgiving is a day about families, and giving thanks for what we have got. There are a lot of single parents at Target. This just ruins the holiday for them.”

She said she had been surprised by management’s attitude to the holiday. “I have always enjoyed working here and they have always seemed flexible,” she said. But not about this. “Their attitude seems to be: if you don’t turn up for work, you don’t have a job.” (Guardian – Grey Thursday)

Obviously some consumers enjoy the opportunity to shop within an increasingly flexible timetable. But, it raises the questions:

  • Does it increase economic welfare to replace national holidays with longer retail hours?
  • Do national holidays need legislation to prevent the encroachment of business into leisure time?
  • If we surveyed the population – should shops be open on Thanksgiving / Christmas day – what % of the population would say ‘yes’?
  • Do the executives who push for longer opening hours get to have Thanksgiving off – or do they join their staff in the shops?

Personally, I feel very old fashioned, and don’t really see why shops have to open on a Sunday, let alone Christmas Day, Boxing day and Thanksgiving. But, then I’m still wearing the same old worn out jumper, my mother gave me for Christmas five years ago. I certainly won’t be joining the stampede to shops on Boxing day morning, but then I am very glad I don’t have to be working over the Christmas period.

What do you think?

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