'Blue laws' keep store doors shut on Thanksgiving
Providence, R.I. • Shoppers won't be lining up for Thanksgiving Day deals at stores in Rhode Island, Maine and Massachusetts. They can't.
It's the legacy of so-called "blue laws," which prohibit large supermarkets, big box stores and department stores from opening on Thanksgiving. Some business groups complain, but many shoppers, workers and even retailers say they're satisfied with a one-day reprieve from work and holiday shopping.
"I shop all year. People need to be with their families on Thanksgiving," said Debra Wall, of Pawtucket, R.I., who will remain quite happily at home Thursday, cooking a meal for 10.
The holiday shopping frenzy has crept deeper than ever into Thanksgiving this year. Macy's, J.C. Penney and Staples will open on Thanksgiving for the first time. Toys R Us will open at 5 p.m., and Wal-Mart, already open 24 hours in many locations, will start holiday deals at 6 p.m., two hours earlier than last year. In recent years, some retail employees and their supporters have started online petitions to protest stores that open on Thanksgiving but shoppers keep coming.
Bill Rennie, vice president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said many shoppers are crossing into border states that allow Thanksgiving shopping, including Connecticut, Vermont, New York or New Hampshire, which is even more alluring because it doesn't have a sales tax.
"Why not give stores in Massachusetts the option?" he asked.
The group has backed legislation, which has so far gone nowhere, to roll back the laws and allow stores to open on Thanksgiving and Christmas. That would include grocery stores, which also must stay closed on the holidays. Woe to the Massachusetts cook who forgets a crucial ingredient or messes up the turkey and is forced to find a replacement at a convenience store. Convenience stores are allowed to open, as are movie theaters, pharmacies, restaurants and some other businesses.
The laws do not prohibit stores from opening at non-traditional hours Friday, and some will open at midnight or 1 a.m., when holiday deals start.
Blue laws were once widespread throughout the country and are thought to date back to Colonial times, although some of the regulations in Maine were instituted in the 1960s. The name may be derived from an 18th-century usage of "blue" meaning "rigidly moral," according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
The rules vary among the states. Retailers smaller than 5,000 square feet can operate in Maine, for example.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are the main holidays affected in all three states, but in Massachusetts, blue laws also prohibit stores from opening on the mornings of Columbus Day and Veterans Day without state permission. Easter and New Year's Day are also sometimes included.
Rhode Island lawmakers have in recent years rolled back blue law prohibitions on Sunday sales of alcohol and cars, but the Thanksgiving ban remains. Maine lawmakers shot down legislation this year that would have allowed stores to open on the holiday.
Law enforcement officials in all three states said there had been no recent incidents they could recall of retailers breaking the law. In 2005, Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly sent a warning letter to upscale grocery chain Whole Foods after a competitor discovered it was planning to open on Thanksgiving. In Maine, a violation is punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Maine allows certain sporting goods stores to remain open, an exemption that allows Freeport-based outdoor retailer L.L. Bean to operate 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said workers sign up for shifts on a volunteer basis and get paid extra for working the holiday. She said they generally have more volunteers than shifts on what she calls a generally slower business day.
But along the New Hampshire border, the Kittery Trading Post in Kittery, Maine, will remain closed, even though it could operate under the same exemption, said vice president Fox Keim, who said giving employees the day off is part of the store's "core values."
"What's more important to us is keeping our staff happy and keeping morale at the company at a high level," he said.