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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Elipsed: Will the Offending Businesses Go Extinct?

Even as the business-sourced encroachment of Christmas had all but eclipsed the American holiday of Thanksgiving in 2013 on account of the day falling so late in November (as if four weeks were somehow not a long enough time for gift-buying), the on-going trend (or stampede) of stores opening earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving puts the holiday itself in the cross-hairs of the retail rifles. Thanksgiving may one day be essentially extinct, and, ironically, so too might be the usual suspects--the enterprises themselves.

The New York Times reported in mid-November 2011, “Major chains like Target, Macy’s, Best Buy and Kohl’s say they will open for the first time at midnight on Thanksgiving, and Wal-Mart will go even further, with a 10 p.m. Thanksgiving start for deals on some merchandise. . . . To be at or near the front of the line, shoppers say they will now have to leave home hours earlier — in the middle of the turkey dinner for some.”[1] Of course, Wal-Mart stores would be open all day, as usual; the significance of midnight lies only in terms of the sales; the stores would still need to be staffed all day. In 2012, 10 p.m. became the new normal. Two years later, 8 p.m. (20:00h) earned the distinction. Four hours into Thanksgiving was apparently enough for Kmart to “go all the way,” opening at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving. Old Navy extended back to 9 a.m. It is amazing how fast a trickle from a few cracks can turn into a deluge, especially when profit is the force beckoning the water down-stream.

Resisting the smooth flow in 2011,  an apparent anti-entropic energy-attractor was on track to blaze a new path. Bill Gentner, senior vice president for marketing for J.C. Penney, refused to go along with herd down the easiest path of energy transduction, which can paradoxically render the person, species, or human organization less fit to adapt via natural selection. “We wanted to give our associates Thanksgiving Day to spend with their families,” Gentner said just before Thanksgiving in 2011.[2]  In standing on this principle, the management group at J.C. Penney voluntarily resisted the “quick buck” (i.e., pulling in money as soon as possible) and perhaps even held business calculation at bay in the face of a normative societal “constraint.”

Lest I am “gilding the lily” (i.e., painting a halo around Bill Gentner’s head), J.C. Penny’s management may also have been seeking to amass reputational capital with the intent to “spend” it to increase sales revenue  beyond 2011. The company could then be fitter in adapting to a nonlinear (i.e., chaotic) business environment, and thus more likely to survive through the cumulative cascades of natural selection. Linking evolutionary theory to thermodynamics and applying the fused thrust to business, I contend that capturing and concentrating energy in the battery, or storage cell, of reputational capital enables a company to survive under the pressures of natural selection by functioning as a transductor of energy along a high energy gradient.

Unlike floating down-stream with the other fish, adding to the swirling force of an eddy enables an enterprise act as a conduit on a much steeper energy-gradient. Concentrating acquired energy rather than merely passing it through as though a digestive track is requisite to taking the road less travelled down steeper energy-gradients than those in the status quo. Similar to the time value of money, the delayed gratification enabling an enterprise to ski on a steeper slope renders the organization more fit or adapted to its environment and thus profitable beyond tomorrow. In other words, functioning as an energy-conduit along a steeper gradient profits a business in terms of natural selection, and thus a more secure continued viability.[3]

Alternatively, taking the alternative route, the more convenient one, ultimately leads to extinction. Typically, convenience knows itself as a lie. For example, Holly Thomas, one of Macy’s spokespersons, wrote in an email in 2011 regarding employees working on Thanksgiving, “There are many associates who would prefer to work this time as they appreciate the flexibility it affords their schedules for the holiday weekend.”[4] As if referring to a summer baseball team rather than employees, Molly Snyder, a spokesperson at Target, said that her company does its “best to work around the schedules of [its] team members.” Nevertheless, a Target employee told me that the store managers do not in any sense do their best to accommodate exogenous schedules of the underlings. In going with a bland subterfuge rather than adapting to societal norms, Target's management put the company at odds with the principle of natural selection.

The lure of instant gratification in lieu of reputational capital and fitness to survive the accretions of natural selection over time can easily short-circuit efforts to charge the battery at the expense of increased sales revenue in the short term. Sadly, the management at J.C. Penny succumbed in 2012 to opening stores at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. The following year, the company joined many others in opening at 8 p.m. (20:00h). Nothing punctures a pressurizing balloon quite like that the piercing edge of hypocrisy. Put another way, having stores open on Thanksgiving evening not only cuts into or even eliminates Thanksgiving dinner (i.e., in the evening) for many store managers and non-supervisory employees, but also sends the passive-aggressive message that they don’t count after all. Actions speak louder than words.

So J.C. Penny’s management wimped out, or lapsed back to the bottle yet without hitting bottom. Being less fit than otherwise to navigate the turgid currents in natural selection over the long term, the retail giant risked being caught unaware should a careening stone hit a sweet spot from a smaller foe releasing a burst of (stored) potential energy to take advantage of a steep energy gradient. From this tale, we can now recognize the tyranny of the road most travelled as a well-worn, deep-rutted path of self-destructive (i.e., dysfunctional) business strategy. In other words, business as usual is woefully far indeed from good business management. Nevertheless, the vast majority of management groups in companies are under the false impression that scientific management has optimized modern management. While technical coordination aimed at the perfection of efficiency is important to a business functioning as an energy-attractor and transductor along a steep slope, the size and depth of the shared blind-spot bewilders me and beguiles the pro-business American society at large. If I am correct, business could be done much, much better.

1. Stephanie Clifford, “Thanksgiving as Day to Shop Meets Rejection,” The New York Times, November 11, 2011.
2. Ibid.
3. William C. Frederick, Natural Corporate Management: From the Big Bang to Wall Street (Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing, 2012).
4. Hadley Malcolm, “Black Friday Backlash as Stores Add to Thanksgiving Hours,” USA Today, November 15, 2011.