It was only a matter of time
Published: January 14, 2007 / Author: Heidi Smalls
The mailer appeared simple enough, with an advertisement of a one-day denim sale.
But the date selected for the clearance on certain apparel at Catherines stores might evoke — in some people — a question of business ethics.
Is anything wrong with a retailer promoting a discount on Monday, the national holiday that honors a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr.?
And at what point does the overcommercialized world become too commercialized?
“I don’t have that answer,” said Patrick Murphy, professor of marketing at the University of
Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.
Consumers who may be put off by Martin Luther King Jr. Day sales, like those with military ties
who feel the same way about Memorial Day and Fourth of July sales, will vote with their feet, he
said, and stay away.
“And others, in our sort of jaded consumer culture, just go about their merry way,” said Murphy,
also co-director of the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide. “There’s the expectation now
that virtually every holiday will have some … retailers involved.”
For a growing number of retailers, even Christmas Day has become just another day for business and product sales. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is one of the last national holidays to be placed on retail promotion schedules.
But retailers and marketers should ask themselves if they are being respectful of the holiday
observance if they conduct a sale, Murphy said, “realizing there may be critics.”
Stores traditionally consider U.S. holidays and observances as well as seasonal events and other happenings for planning promotions. Even better when the events mark a time to give presents or stay home from work.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers no reason to shop for a gift, said Theresa Williams, director of
the Center for Retailing at Indiana University in Bloomington.
But does that make a Martin Luther King Jr. Day sale wrong?
Williams doesn’t think so.
“People don’t have to shop. If stores were open and no one showed up, then they wouldn’t open
their doors,” she said.
Catherines’ nationwide sales promotion didn’t come as a surprise to Williams, who noted how
January usually is very promotional — especially among specialty retailers after weaker-than-expected December and holiday sales.
This isn’t a new promotion; Catherines has offered it in the past as a Martin Luther King Jr. Day only sale and has not encountered any negative feedback from consumers, the company says.
“Catherines is well-focused on understanding that our consumers have the opportunity to do a
little extra shopping around the holiday time, and to give the customer a compelling reason to
shop our stores,” said Gayle Coolik, director of investor relations at Pennsylvania-based
Charming Shoppes, Catherines’ owner.
In Trina Robinson’s eyes, a sale or promotion scheduled on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a great
marketing strategy for companies.
Robinson, president of the NAACP branch in South Bend, said that by advertising such a sale,
the chain — including the store in Mishawaka — is helping to commemorate a man who has made significant contributions to society.
“I think it’s awesome that Catherines would do that. That just shows the progress that we’re
making, even here in this community,” she said. “They’re acknowledging a great leader. A lot of
people talk the talk, but they don’t always walk the walk.”
Besides, stores don’t take any meaning away from Presidents Day when they have sales then,
Robinson said. And there are still Martin Luther King Jr. Day events taking place in the community to help honor King’s legacy, she said.
On top of that, Robinson doesn’t think having a sale on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is meant to
be disrespectful, she said.
“I try to look at the positive in everything,” Robinson said.
Of course, not everyone likes the idea of having a sale during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday,
said Steve Klein, communications coordinator for the King Center in Atlanta.
“You can argue that it’s in poor taste and all that,” Klein said. But if it’s on a small scale, it’s not
something major to worry about, he said.
In the past 21 years, Klein has known of only a few Martin Luther King Jr. Day ads — five at the
most, he said.
“I think we would have seen a much stronger dynamic in that direction by now,” Klein said.