PORTLAND, Maine — The season has arrived for making your list and checking it twice. Your shopping list, that is.
Perhaps frustrating the wishes of those who forgot the cranberry sauce — but how could you? — Maine continues to be one of just three states in the country with so-called Blue Laws, preventing major retailers and some grocery stores from opening on holidays, including Thanksgiving Day.
That means promotions you may have heard for Black Friday sales starting before the clock strikes midnight won’t be happening in Maine.
It also means a closure for grocery stores like G&M Market in Holden, which last year pushed for changes to the law because the convenience store’s expansion to a full-scale market put it over the 5,000-square-foot limit for retail outlets that could claim an exemption from the holiday sales prohibition.
“In six hours [on Thanksgiving Day], I would do the business of a 14-hour day,” Greg Hawes, the owner, said of times before the store’s expansion in 2012. “I would expect that that would be even greater as a grocery store.”
When Hawes’ store was open on Thanksgiving, he said, employees received time-and-a-half pay.
“I’ve never forced anyone to work [the holiday],” Hawes said, noting he would make a signup sheet available to employees who he said were eager to make extra money leading into the heating and holiday season.
There are a wide range of exceptions in Maine law, but stores like Hawes’ is not one of them.
The perpetually open L.L. Bean inevitably comes up as one example, though the store fits under one of 34 exceptions in Maine’s law governing business activities on holidays and Holy Days, including Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day.
The restrictions linger from a time when Maine businesses were required to close on Sundays.
Among the businesses that may operate on those days are newspapers, hotels, restaurants, laundromats, vending machines and ATMs, pharmacies, farm stands, seafood processors, movie theaters, bowling alleys, retail monument dealers, mobile home dealers and venues for “public dancing.”
The impact of the law is broader — but perhaps not more dire — than making last-minute Thanksgiving meal purchases.
The other notable consequence is that stores can’t open in the evening on Thanksgiving Day, a recent trend in retail that Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, said has been popular with consumers and that helped disperse Black Friday crowds that led to in-store tramplings and fights.
This year, Picard said the restriction likely will not be an issue, given a storm forecast to arrive Wednesday night and pose a challenge for holiday travel.
Picard’s group has not taken a stance on whether or how Maine should change its Blue Laws, but he said he was surprised to find years ago that the state is joined only by Rhode Island and Massachusetts in keeping such restrictions on the books.
“I don’t think it has an impact on whether retailers are going to be here but I do think it impacts sales tax receipts,” Picard said.
But Picard connects that to the difficulty states have had in collecting sales tax from online retail sales through merchants like Amazon, which are available at all hours.
While the recession that started in late 2007 puts a major wrinkle in analyzing taxable retail sales in recent years, Maine’s general consumer goods purchases for December have fallen in five of the past nine years. The $359.8 million collected during December 2013 was the lowest for any year dating back to 2005. For that period, the total peaked at $420.7 million in 2006.
November consumer goods sales have increased over that same time period, however, rising after a steep drop during the recession in 2007, similar to December figures that year.
A Gallup survey estimated consumer spending nationally is set to rise from last year, with U.S. adults projecting to spend an average of $720 on gifts, up from an average of $704 last year.
Picard said that despite a law at the state level to require online retailers to collect state sales tax, he’s still hopeful for action at the federal level.
But in Holden, Hawes is hoping for changes closer to home.
“I’m not in support of the big box stores being open,” Hawes said. “But a privately owned and family-run store… I have a hard time with them telling me I can’t come in and work.”
The holiday season has him busy now, but Hawes said he may make another push when legislators return in January to restart a lobbying effort aimed to change Maine’s ban on stores such as his opening on Thanksgiving.
“This is our livelihood and this just sucks when they tell me you can’t be open even when it’s just you that wants to be open,” Hawes said.