Who Can Open on Thanksgiving in Maine? 2018 Edition
This blog post was originally posted on October 16, 2013, updated each year since. It has been updated again as of November 5, 2018.
The past few years, we've seen an uptick in the number of national level stores announcing that they are choosing not to open on Thanksgiving Day or are opening later in the day.
While part of that decision is consumer sentiment and a willingness of employers to recognize family time, the other part of the decision is the dramatic increase of online shopping. These days, it's not just Amazon that is available 24/7/365. Even the smallest retailer can have a significant online shopping presence and consumers no longer have to deal with a crush of people to capture their slice of the Black Friday pie.
However, the debate in Maine is pretty much settled. Maine has a specific prohibition on who can open for a long time. The Maine Mall, Bangor Mall and Aroostook Centre Mall are closed every Thanksgiving as is Target, Home Depot, Renys, Mardens and more and that's because Maine is one of three states that limits who can or cannot be open on Thanksgiving for shopping. (The other two are Rhode Island and Massachusetts). The news stories about retailers choosing to not open in other states is just that. It's their choice.
Each year, once the leaves fall and the last cruise ship departs Maine, we start to get some inquiries about the "Holiday Shopping" season and who can or cannot open on Thanksgiving. The questions are often: "Who can open on Thanksgiving?" or "I'm seeing TV ads that have stores opening at 6 PM on Thanksgiving. Isn't that illegal?" or statements like, "Stores shouldn't be open. Time should be spent with families instead." For most retailers operating in Maine, the question is moot to begin with as most stores are prohibited from opening on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. So, what's the deal?
And while it is true that MOST stores can't open on Thanksgiving (or Christmas or Easter - the big three!), Maine's law does have a number of exemptions. The relevant statute is in Title 17, Chapter 105, Section 3204. There's a bunch of legalese in there and you may want to read it once or twice but the carve outs are fairly easy to understand.
For example, restaurants can be open. Pharmacies, gas stations and movie theaters, too. Hotels, taxis, airports and newspapers can be open. Of course, hospitals for public safety are open. Where it gets a little muddier is for what people view as "traditional retail". The basic rule of thumb is if your store is over 5,000 sq. ft., you can't be open - unless you are L.L.Bean (which is always open and a Maine tradition!) or another exempted purpose. The exemption for L.L. Bean is "Establishments primarily selling boats, boating equipment, sporting equipment, souvenirs and novelties."
So, how did these laws happen? For Maine, these laws go back to when "traditional retailers" weren't allowed to open on Sundays. I'm told that issue deeply divided our membership for a time and some would probably still tell you that they wished Maine stayed closed on Sundays even today. However, times have changed and Sunday sales are an accepted practice in Maine and elsewhere. And when you read through the law, you can understand some of the exemptions that were crafted over time.
Will Maine ever change the law? Interestingly, the 2017 legislative session saw a bill (LD 488) to change the law and it almost became law if not for Governor LePage's veto and it being sustained by the House. The bill looked to increase the 5,000 sq. ft. exemption to 10,000 sq. ft for grocery stores only if the local municipality authorized it. The reason was a small, Maine grocery store used to be less than 5,000 sq. ft. They expanded and added jobs but are now greater than 5,000 sq. ft. and Thanksgiving was always one of their busiest days. Where once they could be open, now they must close.
So, why are many retailers changing course this year and deciding to NOT open after all? Each retailer is different and if you look more closely at their specific markets, many of them have robust online presences and have figured out how to compete better with online shoppers. They may have also calculated that the additional hours have not translated into additional sales, but instead just cannibalize the sales they were already doing on Black Friday. The third reason may be customer sentiment and the argument that the holiday should be spent with family. (Although people forget that the reason Thanksgiving falls when it does is because of pressure from retailers on policymakers. Read the history.)
My final word of advice: For retailers, check with your legal eagles to see if your store is exempted or not. For customers, read the fine print in the newspaper and tv ads announcing Thanksgiving hours or check with the store beforehand. It may be legal in New Hampshire, but it is probably not legal in Maine.