It seems as though the annual Columbus Day Sales promotion has finally run its course. Retailers have largely abandoned the event. Once a profit generator for department stores and downtown shopping districts, the Columbus Day Sale has become a liability.
The depiction of an explorer who enslaved and brutalized native inhabitants of the West Indies brought Columbus front and center during recent demonstrations. Many no longer celebrate Columbus as a skilled navigator and the discoverer of America.
The controversy behind Columbus Day is nothing new and has been brewing for several decades. But after a year that included calls for social reform, the removal of statues and monuments, and retail sales declines and closures, 2020 became the year to retire the Columbus Day Sale.
Last October, Belk, the Charlotte-based department store company, held its annual Columbus Day Sale but its sale circulars did not feature the promotion’s name in bold print. Belk has abandoned the annual event completely this year. At Belk, it’s now the “Feeling Fall Sale.”
By the late 1970s, the Columbus Day Sale transitioned from a clothing sale to a home improvement promotion. Home Depot, Lowe’s
However, “Rooms To Go” has elected to hold a Columbus Day Sale this year. The retailer operates over 150 furniture stores throughout the southeastern United States, Texas, and Puerto Rico. Janis Altshuler, Senior Vice President at Rooms To Go, says, “Rooms To Go opted to keep Columbus Day as the name for the event because that is the federal name of the holiday and we wanted to avoid confusion. This certainly will be considered in the future and no decision has been made for 2021.”
Altshuler explains why it remains an important sale for furniture retailers. “Traditionally, federal holidays, especially those that turn into 3-day weekends, make for good furniture shopping times for consumers. Since furniture is a considered a large purchase, it is advantageous to have multiple family members be able to shop together and having Monday off extends that opportunity.”
In recent years, department stores, once the cornerstone for the annual event, have steadily abandoned the Columbus Day Sale name. Dillard’s eliminated the annual promotion in 2009. Macy’s did likewise in 2017.
The Columbus Day Sale had little purpose other than to be an October promotion. The year’s sales trends often dictated the nature of the sale. Retailers used it as a clearance event for summer stock when back-to-school figures fell below expectations. During healthier years, stores used it as a kick-off for an expectedly strong holiday season.
Columbus Day sales were often organized by downtown merchant associations or the local Chamber of Commerce. But these citywide events were usually focused on sales, not Columbus.
The first Columbus Day sale dates back to 1910, when fifteen states initially observed Columbus Day as an official holiday. Abraham & Straus, the famous Brooklyn department store, made reference to a Columbus Day Sale that October. A store advertisement proclaimed that Columbus “dared to make the first trip” across the Atlantic and “knew the world was round.”
Alongside the featured merchandise, Abraham & Straus elaborated. “We celebrate the first landing in the New World and we celebrate with sales for children – the schools are to be closed – and with sales for men who have a holiday.”
By the 1940s, Columbus Day Sales were used as an opportunity to sell winter merchandise, from heavy shirts to coats. One Tennessee department store succinctly described the holiday in an advertisement. “It’s time to outfit your small-fry in their winter togs. There’s no school on Columbus Day, the ideal time to bring in your youngsters to be fitted in sturdy, warm, smart coats.”
In the 1970s, the controversy surrounding Christopher Columbus appeared in news reports every October. In 1992, Sacramento officials added an “Indigenous Peoples Day” celebration alongside its traditional Columbus Day holiday. Sacramento saw it as a fair compromise that addressed activists and local American Indian groups.
Berkeley, California went one step farther and ended any official recognition of Columbus Day. Beginning in 1992, Berkeley replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Tom Hritz, a syndicated columnist with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expressed his bewilderment with the new Indigenous Peoples Day designation. “Isn’t that great? Imagine what the department stores in Berkeley will be able to do. Giant Indigenous Peoples Day Sale! Where will the do-gooders strike next?”
Last year, Air North, the official airline of Canada’s Yukon Territory, became the first corporation that established an Indigenous Peoples Day Sale.
It’s been 28 years since an Indigenous Peoples Day was first discussed as a replacement for the Columbus Day holiday. As statues and monuments of Columbus are defaced or removed, a heated debate between the Italian-American community and social activists and protestors has ensued. Retailers cannot afford to be part of that debate.