First, the background. Historically, Walmart has opened its doors on Thanksgiving -- usually at 6 p.m. local time -- to get a jump on Black Friday and the official start of the holiday shopping season.
It's been a flashpoint for some critics, because of course opening on Thanksgiving Day means some Walmart employees have to work on one of the few days that most Americans take off and spend with families.
"We know this has been a trying year, and our associates have stepped up. We hope they will enjoy a special Thanksgiving Day at home with their loved ones," John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S., said in announcing that Walmart and Sam's Club will close on Thanksgiving for the first time in 30 years. "We are certainly thankful to our people for all of their efforts."
Certainly other stakeholders -- from the manufacturers who distribute their products through Walmart, to investors and competitors -- have to be wondering now what it tells us about how robust a holiday shopping season Walmart expects.
But, I think there's also crucial lesson to be taken about the timing of Walmart's decision--and why the company felt compelled to make an announcement four months ahead of time.
Regular readers will know I've been deconstructing the unusual (often early) timing of big company announcements recently. For example, I wrote about why United Airlines announced three weeks earlier than it legally had to that it might lay off 36,000 employees. (More on that here.)
With Walmart, I don't see any secret, strategic move to making this announcement literally four months before Thanksgiving Day -- and long before most Walmart customers and employees were thinking about it.
("We wanted our customers and our associates to have time to plan their Thanksgiving, hence the timing," Walmart spokeswoman Tara House told me when I asked for more information. "We'll have more to share about additional holiday news, but nothing ... at this time.")
But I do see something else that should be the goal of almost every business right now: Projecting certainty and reassurance about the future.
No matter what business you're in, the single thing almost all of your customers and employees likely have in common is that they're collectively living through the single most uncertain time in our history.
We crave anything solid -- even bad news, according to neuroscientists -- if we can trust it right now.
So, think it through in your life and your business.
What announcements can you make that you can carve in stone right now -- and say, bar none, this is what we're doing?
- Are you in a position to commit to hiring or retaining a certain number of employees?
- Can you promise to honor returns or warranties through a specific date?
- Does it make sense to announce now that you'll be open or closed on a particular day?
Even beyond the specifics of your announcement, the mere fact that you're projecting confidence about the future can make you stand out among competitors, and subconsciously reassure your customers.
And here's an small optimistic postscript that Walmart might well have in mind.
Among the few things we can 100 percent count on right now: the calendar, and the passage of time.
A quick look shows a small benefit for retailers like Walmart, and anyone else who depends on the holiday season for an outsized portion of their annual sales.
Last year, Thanksgiving was on the latest possible date it could be: November 28. This year, it's November 26.
That means there are 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, compared with only 25 last year.
And that in turn means extra days to figure out how to serve customers during this uncertain time -- even if you decide to close for one of them. It's one small thing you can count on.