I remember when I was a kid in Catholic school there was a lot of hand-wringing about the fact we’d lost sight about the reason for the Christmas season. I hated that. Of course Christmas was about presents! I loved opening my presents in my odd, old-lady fashion, carefully removing tape, never ripping any paper (to the exasperation of my mother). I still love presents just as much. (And I still open them the same way).
So I am not staying away from shopping on Black Friday in some total repudiation of materialism. Humanity has shown affection and familial ties through the exchange of goods since back when tusks and hides were the must-have gift. I am staying away from Black Friday because I don’t like to be manipulated. And because I want to live the spirit of the season by showing some compassion. Here’s what I mean:
Black Friday has not always been a thing. I remember when I first started to hear it reported on in the news, as filler information during holiday slow-news time. Did you know that a lot of people use the day after Thanksgiving to get a jump on Christmas shopping? they’d remark. Interesting, people would think. Maybe I’ll be one of the smart ones and get some shopping done on that day too.
A little research reveals that the term Black Friday was first used in the shopping context in 1961 by the Philadelphia Police Department. They coined it to refer to the additional traffic in shopping areas on the day after Thanksgiving (and not in a good way). Use of the term spread slowly, unofficially, and did not start getting media coverage until the 1990s. At the time, news sources erroneously asserted that Black Friday was the busiest shopping day of the year. In fact, that was not to be true until 2003, after years of a concerted PR and advertising push by retailers.
So what’s wrong with a made-up “holiday” anyway? After all, we all kind understand that Mother’s Day and Valentine’s were made up by greeting card companies, and yet we play along anyway. Why should we resist the retail manipulation of Black Friday?
Black Friday is different in that its only goal is the acquisition of stuff. It’s not about making your mom or your girlfriend feel good – it’s about trampling strangers to get “deals” which are readily available from the warmth and comfort of your own home with the click of a button. It’s a false urgency created by retailers to make you think you have to spend more money on more things you don’t need. Look at the sales figures year over year and you’ll see that retailers are leading a successful campaign. According to the National Retail Federation, in 2006, there were 140 million shoppers on Black Friday weekend. In 2012 it was 247 million shoppers. Average amount spent went from $360.15 to $423.66. That’s an increase that has outpaced inflation during an economic recession. Not a bad way to boost profits.
What’s worse is who loses on Black Friday. Those cash registers don’t man themselves. The displays that get ripped to shreds don’t get magically tidied up. Retail workers – among the most underpaid and ill-treated workers in America – are told they must work on that day and failure to comply is a fireable offense. Ask any retail worker to tell you a Black Friday horror story and you’ll get an earful, from injuries sustained to the extra hours they’re expected to stay on after the store closes to clean up, often unpaid and after twelve hours or more on their feet. We’ve all heard the stories of violence and tramplings. What you won’t hear reported is what one retail worker described as “the soul-crushing experience” of working on those days.
But Christmas creep makes it so that the situation is getting worse for them. During the race to one-up other retailers, each one began announcing an earlier opening time. In 2011, Walmart opened for Black Friday at 10:00 p.m. on Black Thursday (formerly known as Thanksgiving). In 2012 Toys R Us opened at 5:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. The trend only continues.
So what’s the harm in offering an alternative to the tryptophan coma and the football game? The workers, that’s what. More than being expected to work grueling hours under horrible, stressful conditions on the day after a holiday, now workers are expected to forgo the Thanksgiving holiday itself. Many Target and Walmart workers are planning walkouts. If you have the luxury of planning a shopping trip on the day after Thanksgiving, chances are that means you are among the lucky who have paid time off at work. 24% of Americans don’t have that luxury and retail workers are disproportionately represented in that number. If you’re shopping on Black Friday (and especially on Thanksgiving) you’re using your day off in a way that makes it so that someone else can’t get theirs.
There is something that you and I can do, and that leads me to the title of this piece.
Corporations have attempted to create false urgency for us in the past. “Trends” can very often be traced back to clever marketing techniques and controlled supplies. But, eventually, trends run their course. And you and I can help end this trend by simply deciding not to participate. There is nothing you need so badly that it should involve a retail worker not getting a chance to reflect and give thanks during a quiet family holiday. There is no object that should create situations of panic and stampede. This year, when you read the shrill headlines about ever-earlier hours of operation and see the too-good-to-be-true prices in the circular, remember that some clever marketer is trying to manipulate you and make you spend more money than you normally would. Put down the paper, turn off the channel, and breathe. Let’s all have a happy holiday that involves getting and giving gifts, loving our families and yet acting with compassion and common sense.