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Black Friday the Wal-Mart way

Wal-Mart is tweaking its holiday strategy this year- using new ways to lure in customers and secure their spot as the top retailer.

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The day after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping day of the year in America, with people camping in front of stores across the country for days to be first in line for sales, much as they do in Australia on Boxing Day.

The frenzy in the nation's shopping malls is so fierce the day is known as Black Friday.

This year unions are planning to turn it into a day of nationwide action against the country's largest private employer, Wal-Mart, with protests against the retailer's low wages and aggressive anti-union stance planned for more than 1500 of its 4000 outlets.

Customers shop at a Walmart store in Los Angels. This year, Black Friday starts earlier than ever, with some retailers, including Wal-Mart, opening early on Thanksgiving evening.

Unions plan to turn America's 'Black Friday' shopping frenzy into a national day of action against Wal-Mart's low wages. Photo: Reuters

The chain has become the focus of a campaign to raise America's minimum wage of $US7.25 an hour for the first time since 2007. Protesters claim the average Wal-Mart employee is paid $8.81 per hour, while the company says its average employee earns $12.83.

The union-backed protest movement, OUR Wal-Mart (which stand for Organization United for Respect), also hopes to gain a toehold in the fiercely ant-union corporate giant.

Wal-Mart, America's largest private employer with 1.3 million employees, weathered similar protests last year, but this year momentum appears to be gathering against it as concern over inequality increases nationwide.

There was a widespread outcry earlier this month when a Wal-Mart outlet in Canton, Ohio, ran a food drive asking employees to donate canned good for fellow workers who could not afford food for Thanksgiving. Bins were placed in a staff-only area with a sign saying, “Please donate food items so associations [employees] can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper quoted a local resident, Norma Mills, as saying in response, “That [Wal-Mart] would have the audacity to ask low-wage workers to donate to other low-wage workers – to me, it's a moral outrage.”

Wal-Mart has said in response that the drive was set up for employees going through difficult times, and was evidence that its staff cared for one another.

Wal-Mart also appears to be crystalising increasing anger at inequality in America. The Occupy Wall Street movement attracted attention to the problem back in 2010, but the concerns have now percolated into mainstream consciousness.

Wal-Mart made a profit of $15.7 billion last year and it is owned by the wealthiest family in the world, the Waltons, whose collective fortune was estimated in August this year at $150 billion. As Peter Drier, professor of politics at Occidental College, noted in the Huffington Post in October, this is more than the amount owned by the bottom 40 per cent of the American population, or 125 million people.

Many political strategists partly attribute Mitt Romney's loss in the last presidential election to how closely he became identified with the mega-rich class that has commonly become known in America as the one per cent.

Last month the Democrat Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York in a landslide victory after a campaign focused largely on inequality. A survey by Hart Research in July found that eight in 10 Americans (including six in 10 Republicans) backed a proposal to increase the minimum wage.

Even some family-values advocates have turned on Wal-Mart, not just because of its allegedly wages, but because it is now beginning its Black Friday sales on Thursday evening, when American families have traditionally been gathered around their dining tables celebrating Thanksgiving.

Exacerbating the problem for Wal-Mart this year is that America's industrial relations watchdog, the National Labor Relations Board on Monday found that after last year's Black Friday strike and protests the company unlawfully threatened, disciplined or terminated 100 staff in 13 states.

The findings have emboldened the protesters, which Drier now likens to some of the pivotal protest movements of the past hundred years, such as auto-workers strike in Flint, Michigan in 1937 or the Woolworths lunch counter sit-ins by civil rights activists in 1960.

There is little doubt about the impact of Wal-Mart on the broader nation.

Wal-Mart's market power is so significant, Robert Reich, a labor secretary under president Bill Clinton, and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote this week, that if Wal-Mart raised the pay of its own workforce other low-wage employers would be forced to follow suit, prompting an increase in spending.

“Wal-Mart is so huge that a wage boost at Wal-Mart would ripple through the entire economy, putting more money in the pockets of low wage workers. This would help boost the entire economy – including Wal-Mart's own sales,” he wrote in his blog.

The impact on Wal-Mart of the pending protests and strike is unclear, but the signs are that it wary. On Monday it replaced its chief executive and president, Mike Duke, with a company insider, Doug McMillon, prompting its share price to jump 62¢ to a near record of $80.43. (Some attribute his removal to a bribery scandal that has embroiled the company as it seeks to expand in Mexico.)

As Black Thursday approaches Wal-Mart is running a high-profile TV advertising campaign.

That is not so unusual. This year though the focus of the ads is not about the discounts Wal-Mart offers its customers but the benefits it offers its staff.