Earlier this week, BuzzFeed News was given an intriguing offer: interview the president of Kmart, sometime around 5 a.m. Thanksgiving morning.
Alasdair James, who took the top job at the company just over a year ago after working at U.K. retailer Tesco, would be up early, a representative said, and keen to talk about holiday shopping and Black Friday live from a Detroit Kmart ahead of the chain's 6 a.m. Thursday opening — the start of a 40 hour non-stop shopping marathon that would end at 10 p.m. on Friday.
It seemed a little bizarre to discuss the suggested topics — what's "hot for holiday" and the chain's exclusive Adam Levine and Nicki Minaj lines — at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. But intrigue outweighed incredulity. Why was Kmart opening at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving? Did the notion of Black Friday strike James as strange at all, especially after working at a British grocer for the last five years?
And why did the last line of his corporate bio describe him as "a man who would rather take the long route in a sports car than the short route in a limousine?" Was this 40-hour Kmart marathon the equivalent of a "long route in a sports car?"
We never addressed the sports car versus limousine angle, but I groggily spoke to James, and a couple of production people, on the phone at 5 a.m. Thursday morning from one of Kmart's rare 24-hour locations. His enthusiasm was palpable.
"I joined the organization last year just before Black Friday so this is the first time I've experienced the fun of Black Friday in full," said James, who is British. "This is not an event that really happens in the UK or in China where I worked before and therefore it's new for me in that respect."
He described working on Thanksgiving as "great fun."
"So many of my associates that I talk to actually thoroughly enjoy today because it's a great experience for us to have fun with our customers on one of the busiest days of the year," he said. "And you know it's a day that the majority of my associates actually look forward to, myself included."
"The reality is that for many of my associates, yes, they do have fun. And it is an opportunity for us to engage on a really, really important day with our customers," he continued.
"We do pay more for people to work on the holidays because we appreciate we're asking them to make a personal sacrifice and we try to accommodate those associates that actually don't want to work. But for those that are working... there's really enthusiasm because it's such a buzz in the stores."
Kmart and Sears, owned by the same company since 2005, have both been struggling mightily in recent years, closing hundreds of stores while sales spiral. Kmart has gotten a lot of flak for its long hours and early start time, especially after a Nov. 12 story from ThinkProgress reported that 95% of store employees still didn't know their schedules for Thanksgiving and Black Friday at that time. (The story cited a survey of 40 Kmart employees in 18 states.)
James said staff get schedules two weeks in advance, and are used to the holiday hours given Kmart's long history of Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales.
Ultimately, Kmart is simply delivering on what it believes the customer wants.
"In this day and age where many people work shifts throughout the day, we try to give them the time that's most convenient to them," James said. "I know that some people have asked why we're open and I just come back to the fact that we're open because our customers want us to be."
Kmart accounted for $12 billion, or almost 40%, of Sears Holdings Corp.'s $31 billion in sales last year. That's a far cry from the $49.1 billion in annual sales Sears Holdings posted in 2005, when billionaire hedge fund manager and current CEO Eddie Lampert orchestrated Kmart's buyout of Sears.
At around 5:25 a.m., a producer handling James' interviews said it was time for him to move on to his next one. He had a long road ahead of him, and to be fair, I had four more hours of sleep to get back to.
"I'm visiting other stores talking to employees throughout the rest of today, tomorrow and the weekend," he said. "My family's in Chicago and they're doing Thanksgiving without me."
"For me as a retailer, this is a great opportunity for us to sort of do some of our best work and to have fun at a very busy time of year," he said. "I will go home to Chicago Sunday and do Thanksgiving on Sunday evening."