I’ve decided to see how far I can take the idea I proposed with yesterday’s post.
Serious Conversation #2, What We’re Not Saying About Black Friday:
There was a day, not so long ago, when Black Friday, as it’s now known, was simply “the day after Thanksgiving.” Retailers offered big sales and doorbusters at the scandalously early hour of six AM. Or sometimes seven. I’m guessing there was even a point when the stores didn’t open until their regular hours, but I remember six AM for some reason.
The day after Thanksgiving sales always had a whiff of, “Holy shit, this is totally unnecessary,” about them. Now, however, they’re more like, “What the fuck is wrong with us?” wrong. The big story from last year was someone getting trampled to death at a Wal-Mart. The big story from this year was the woman who pepper sprayed a crowd waiting for XBOXes. Oh, yeah, that and the bit where “Black Friday” now starts on a day we used to call “Thanksgiving.”
It’s fascinating to see which store is leading the charge to the bottom of Black Friday depravity. And by “fascinating” I mean, “utterly unsurprising.” All the truly crazy Black Friday shit seems to happen at Wal-Mart. They, in turn, are followed closely by Target.
You’ll notice that Nordstrom’s was not open at 9 PM on Thanksgiving. Hell, Google “Nordstrom doorbuster” or “Saks Fifth Avenue doorbuster.” See what you get. I’ll tell you: you’ll get some hits for sales at Nordstrom Rack, which is the outlet. You’ll get some hits for a big after Christmas sale at Saks. You won’t get, “Show up at 4 AM the day after Thanksgiving!” Try the same thing for any high-end retailer. Look up Brooks Brothers or Neiman Marcus or, um, something else. Like I know. I shop at Kohl’s. Seriously, my shoes are the only clothes I’m currently wearing that I didn’t buy at Kohl’s. And the main problem with buying shoes at Kohl’s is that they generally only go up to size 12 and I’m a 14 or 15, depending on the brand and style.
Anyway, the narrative that we get on Black Friday is basically limited to, “Hey, look at all those crazed bargain hunters.” The bit where people fight each other for toys or pepper spray each other for electronic trinkets or actually get killed by an onrushing horde of shoppers is then basically glossed over. It’s all part of the background of this insanity we’ve taken to calling Black Friday.
The Black Friday stories all combine a weird sort of amusement with a weird level of horror. We’re amused at those people who head to the stores at ungodly hours to buy a four dollar toaster. We’re horrified at the lengths to which people are willing to stoop to get their hands on that four dollar toaster. We then basically chalk the insanity up to crass consumerism and holy-crap, look at those greedy-ass-fucktards. It doesn’t hurt that the store leading the charge towards ever less neighborly behavior is Wal-Mart. It is the fashion to both hate on Wal-Mart and roundly mock those who shop at Wal-Mart, after all.
I can count the number of times I’ve been in a Wal-Mart since I graduated from college on one hand. The only reason I use that as the marker is because there weren’t too many other shopping options in Macomb, IL. Wal-Mart was less the best game in town than it was practically the only game in town. So when we needed to get anything we went to wal-Mart. When I left Macomb I also left Wal-Mart behind, more or less for good.
There’s a certain level of elitism in my story of Wal-Mart hate. I know this and, for the most part, I’m totally okay with it. I’m perfectly content with being an elitist bastard when the situation warrants. The fact of the matter is that I can afford to be an elitist bastard.
I mean that I can literally afford to be an elitist bastard, for the record. If I need to buy electronics I will go to a not-Wal-Mart because, in general, Wal-Mart is getting the lower end stuff, even if you’re looking at name-brand stuff. There’s also the problem that the brands also tend to have a Wal-Mart line that they specifically sell to the low end retailers. Wal-Mart’s insistence on keeping prices low results in a lot of cut corners and substandard materials. I’m not willing to risk a big ticket purchase to potential Wal-Mart levels of quality and have to replace the thing in a couple years, anyway. For small ticket purchases, well, I just don’t like going to Wal-Mart, so it’s worth a couple extra bucks for me to not have to set foot in their stores.
Meanwhile, there are millions of elitist bastards just like me out there. We don’t need to shop at Wal-Mart so we don’t. And we don’t like to shop at Wal-Mart or be one of those Wal-Mart people, so the temptation to look down our noses at Wal-Mart people is quite strong. What’s a strongly-held belief without a bit of overwrought superiority, after all?
There are also, in this world, people who shop at Wal-Mart precisely because Wal-Mart’s prices are low. They’re not bargain hunters. They’re poor. We have a lot of those people in America at the moment. There have been a bunch more over the last couple years, too.
Pepper spray woman turned herself in, but we may never really get her whole side of the story. It may well be that she was just that overzealous, take-no-prisoners bargain hunter we’re supposed to believe rules Black Friday. It may be that she was overtaken by a collective mob mentality. But that was just one story of violence on Friday.
I wonder if that or the other stories of violence don’t have a different root. Perhaps some people visited violence upon their fellow shoppers because they were freaked out that if they didn’t buy that one doorbuster they simply wouldn’t be able to afford getting their kid that Christmas present. Sure, we can talk all about crass commercialism. We can pull out our blankets and suck our thumbs and recite Linus’s speech in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special and discuss how December 25th has nothing to do with the bastardized thing we’ve turned it in to.
But somewhere a mother has to place that high-minded philosophy up against her kid who really, really, really, really wants an XBOX 360 for Christmas and her knowledge that 364 days out of the year she simply can’t afford to buy one. What parent wouldn’t want to see their child’s eyes light up on Christmas morning? Why don’t we get that perspective on Black Friday?
Meanwhile, there’s the whole, “What the fuck is up with stores opening at 9 PM on Thanksgiving?” question. I used to work retail, so I know that a 9 PM opening on Thanksgiving actually means that someone had to be at those stores long before the doors opened. So while those of us who don’t work retail were debating between giving in to the turkey coma and heading out to fight the crowds at the Wal-Mart, some poor schlub was having to skip having dinner with his family to stock shelves. Some poor woman was having to cut off her first Thanksgiving with the new significant other to go get harassed by a billion customers trying to buy a $200 LCD TV.
A lot of people (me included) spent a lot of time asking, “Why the hell are the retailers doing this?” There are three answers that I can discern:
1. Americans love a race to the utter, preposterous extreme. It started when retailers decided to open an hour earlier. People showed up and that one store had an advantage. So the next store had to open two hours early the next year. A couple years ago someone decided to give midnight a try. That broke a barrier in to Thanksgiving itself. Americans love a front-runner.
2. People show up. Seriously. Next year Wal-Mart will open at 8 PM on Thanksgiving. Why? Because people showed up at 9 PM this year.
3. No one can stop them. There’s only one group of people who can keep a Wal-Mart from opening at 9 PM on Thanksgiving: Wal-Mart employees. But they’ll all lose their jobs if they try doing that. What Wal-Mart employees need is a union that will allow them to collectively stand up and say, “We ain’t doing this anymore.” They, of course, do not have a union. That’s rather convenient if you’re an unscrupulous management bastard trying to get the drop on Target. And it’s not like Target’s going to stop the headlong plunge to insanity. They don’t have a union, either. And they need to keep up with the Waltons.
The odd one here is Macy’s. I think of them as high end because, y’know, they’re fucking Macy’s. And they bought out Marshall Field’s, which was also high end at one point. But Macy’s is right there in the thick of it with midnight doorbusters. And, now that I think about it, Marshall Field’s participated, too, back when it was still an elegant affair of stately shoppers shuffling in at six and not pepper spraying each other and whatnot.
Also, Kohl’s does not sell Rockport. This is important to me, as I am currently wearing shoes that I have had so long I’m on the second set of soles. The shoe part is only now beginning to break down. I have two pair of Rockports in that boat.
Fred pointed to an interesting examination of the less-than-friendly history of the term. Let’s put it this way: it’s a lot closer to “Black Tuesday” than the term “in the black.”