November 23, 2012
On Black Friday and the Culture of Consumerism
Black Friday is a polarizing retail concept. Some of us love the opportunity to get up early and hunt for the best deals on items available in limited quantities. Black Friday has become for plenty of Americans, it's own annual tradition. But others loathe that each year seems to bring out even more appalling, sensationalistic tales depicted on nightly news broadcasts as the worst elements of consumer greed, materialism, and competition. Although I have shopped many Black Fridays with my mom and siblings, I have felt empathetic to both perspectives.
And as Black Friday encroaches earlier and earlier into the week, subsuming Thanksgiving Day and in some cases, even the days preceding it, it becomes difficult not to notice a growing contempt for this shopper holiday.
What is most interesting to me is that the bulk of the ire toward Black Friday gets channeled at shoppers, themselves. And it's no wonder because the setup creates conditions in which the shoppers become very easy targets. People camped out in sleeping bags the week prior. Lines stretching around already expansive strip malls. The fights between warring customers over the last available hot toy from that year. The ugly, depressing video footage of the hoards of shoppers rushing into big box stores as soon the doors open, often trampling one another and/or bedraggled workers in the process. All of it makes for a sensationally unattractive portrait of American consumption and material life. But when I discuss Black Friday with friends and colleagues, and they rail against the shoppers I find myself becoming defensive. This is not only because I have shopped Black Friday in years previous, but also because the discussion rarely evades what I regard to be a rhetoric of classism. The anti-Black Friday argument is usually some version of the following: "I don't care about saving money enough to deal with the crowds," and "If you can't afford it any other day, you don't need it/shouldn't be buying it on Black Friday." These are both arguments that have merit, for sure. But in my experience, these arguments come most often from people who are able (socioeconomically speaking) to afford easily to opt out from Black Friday and its savings.
For better or worse those of us in America currently inhabit an incredibly materialistic cultural moment in which notions surrounding consumer "needs" get blurred with our desires and "wants." People who are financially struggling aren't living in social vacuums and aren't exempt from the pressures of holiday "performance." Regardless of class status, for many of us a successful December holiday is measured by the ability to effectively lavish loved ones with material appreciations of their choice/by their request. The process of making a gift list and checking it twice isn't one only reserved for the North Pole. Gifts and the process of giving matter to people. And the holidays are (particularly for those of us that do not practice religious rituals) an opportunity to make memories that matter with loved ones. Those memories are sometimes of the material variety. I don't think that is terrible or contemptuous or greedy. I also don't consider it to be a cultural practice that should be reserved for only the middle and upper-strata of our socio-economic hierarchy. I have incredibly vivid memories from different points in my life of giving and receiving gifts. And I am sure this is true for the bulk of the American public, regardless of their bank accounts or annual salaries.
Anti- and pro-Black Friday shoppers will likely agree that the gifts we buy should be what we can afford. Anti-Black Friday shoppers might also say that we shouldn't be so greedy as to want something we can't otherwise afford. But on Black Friday that elusive concept of "afford-ability" becomes a bit more malleable than usual, with steep discounts to lure in deal hunters. So of course, those shoppers who need to stretch their dollars the farthest will encompass a large portion of those tempted to shop Black Friday. Rather than begrudge people the chance to fulfill most efficiently the wishlists of those around them I propose we direct Black Friday related anger and contempt toward the driving forces behind this shopper holiday's colonization of Thanksgiving.
Shoppers aren't the ones making executive decisions regarding store hours. Shoppers can't require employees to leave their families for work rather than eat dinner and give thanks. Shoppers don't assign doorbusters or distribute store circulars that say "no rain checks," "no price matching," and "only x number of item available per location." The driving motivation behind doorbusters and Thanksgiving Day hours and early deals are most certainly the stores themselves. Each among the participating mega companies/brands/stores stand to benefit from their own manufactured demand by providing consumers with more and earlier times during which to consume.
And so, the concept of Black Friday has generated for big corporations both a domino effect and a retail race to the bottom. I remember a time when opening at 6am on Friday seemed somewhat inhumane but enough to generate a buzz. In the last few years the landscape of competition has been such that one store announces that they'll open at midnight on Black Friday. The next one-ups things by opening at 11pm on Thanksgiving Day. Before you know it, the standard becomes opening at 8pm or 6pm (prime dinner hours) or even earlier on Thanksgiving, drawing both workers (out of requirement) and consumers (out of the desire to get the best prices) away from their loved ones on a day when we are supposed to count our blessings and be thankful for what we have.
If it seems ugly that's because it is ugly. The ideology of consumerism under a capitalist marketplace can absolutely be ugly. But in this example, make no mistake: it is an ugly that stems more so from corporate greed, rather than consumer greed. Corporate greed configures a system in which the specter of consumerism becomes magnified and monstrous.
If and when store executives consider opting out of Thanksgiving hours, they might feel compelled by the bottom line: most consumers have finite amounts of holiday shopping dollars. The competition for those dollars in a neoliberal marketplace is such that very few big players will opt out. Black Friday will marshal forward, continuing to produce an easy consumer scapegoat. And it will further colonize the month of November. But I for one won't be holding the shoppers to blame.
*props to those companies that announced they will not open on Thanksgiving Day. It's telling that at this point stores must announce that they *won't* be open on a holiday.