Black Friday and American-style Materialism

I’m appalled at how Black Friday has evolved in recent years. Truly appalled.

From an economic perspective, I understand why stores market the way they do. Corporate number-crunchers in fancy suits worry about how stores will perform between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when retailers attempt to make up for lackluster sales throughout the rest of the year.

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I listen to Marketplace on NPR enough to know that retail numbers are considered to be very important for our economy. Whether or not that’s how our economy should be measured, the reality is that this is the way we do things here in the US.

Our grandparents rationed. We shop.

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So it’s only natural that Black Friday has become what it is. A chaotic day in which hoards of people rush to the stores and literally fight over who can get out alive with the cheapest “Made in some country on the other side of the world where factory workers get paid less than a dollar a day and might even get trapped inside during a fire and die” merchandise.

‘Tis the season for fist punches and gun shots. Deck the hall…or deck your fellow shopper.

Walmart is ground zero for the War on (for?) Christmas. Or, at least, it looks like a battleground. Yes, other stores are complicit, but none seem to exploit violent shoppers as some sort of bargain-branding strategy.

People of Walmart indeed.

Wait…Friday isn’t soon enough. Now Thanksgiving evening is the new trend, because the pre-Christmas shopping season can’t get here soon enough. Yes, we’ve become accustomed to seeing Christmas decorations on display in July, but it’s not truly the season of buying until pre-post-Thanksgiving sales are upon us.

So this is Christmas. I hope you have fun.

As for the brave employees who leave their families on a national holiday to work these sales? Most of them are getting paid next to nothing for enduring the mayhem. How else can Walmart make a profit while selling electronic tablets for $29? Certainly not by cutting executive pay, even when the company’s performance is less than stellar.

“You shop at Walmart.”

That’s what kids said to each other when I was young. It was the worst insult you could possibly say. The only comeback I could think of at the time was, “How would you know? Did you see me there?” This was before the 24-hour super-duper-centers and Black Friday madness. Aah…to be young and picked on again…

We’re living in a material world

As I’ve been reflecting on what Black Friday has become, a particular childhood memory has come to mind. We didn’t have much money when I was growing up. Out of sheer budgetary desperation, mom considered putting my sister and me on the school free lunch program at one point, but I told her that I would rather starve than be subjected to such a horror. The reason was simple: everyone knew who was on free lunch, and given that I was already a bit “different” from my classmates, I just knew that I would be ridiculed for it…because we all know (or thought we knew) that kids are directly responsible for whether or not their parents can earn enough money (yet kids pick up on what they hear their parents say, which contributes to bullying and mockery).

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Because of my stubborn willfulness, my mother struggled to buy food for us. Sometimes this meant going without electricity for a couple of days, or walking around in bathing suits in the summer when the air conditioner was out for an extended period of time. But kids are cruel, and I didn’t know how much more cruelty I could handle.

If your doll’s butt doesn’t have a factory-stamped autograph on it, it’s not good enough for the playground.

As if the lunch situation wasn’t bad enough, I also had to deal with the fact that we couldn’t afford an “authentic” Cabbage Patch Kid. 5th grade. Back when 5th grade wasn’t the start of puberty for half the kids. My classmates brought their expensive dolls to school, and I was so happy when Mom bought me a lovely handmade Cabbage Patch knockoff. Mom couldn’t afford the real deal, but this one was actually nicer with its hand-stitching and one-of-a-kind clothes.

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I excitedly took my faux-CPK to school, feeling that I would “fit in” that day, only to discover that my doll was yet another source for me to feel inferior. You see, it didn’t have the official Xavier Roberts stamp on its tush, which meant that I definitely should not bring it back to school. I went home in tears, angry at my mother for not being able to afford the more expensive foreign-factory-made version, and I couldn’t even look at the doll for a month. I still have it, as it’s been something of a symbol of my childhood, keeping me in check whenever I start to feel pulled toward a more materialistic bent. Mom didn’t place a high value on expensive things, and now that I’m old enough to have a better perspective, I’m so thankful for that.

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“I live to shop.”

That phrase was plastered all over t-shirts, coffee mugs, and whatever other cheap merchandise was popular during the materialistic ’80s. And it’s still with us to a certain extent. There have been times when I’ve felt really judgmental toward those who become absorbed with the stuff of the world, but I have been trying not to be so judgmental about it. I could easily slip into an anti-consumer elitist mentality, looking down on those who rush to the big box stores and malls on Black Friday.

Change begins with me.

The thing is, though, that smugness, superiority, and disdain are not compassionate. I’m saddened by what this time of the year has become. I grieve when I read about the fights and the gunshots in retail stores. But I might also “get it,” just a little bit. I’m thankful that my mother taught me not to place so much value on objects, but I also remember what it was like to want to be included. “Stuff” is one of the ways we bond as humans. For better or worse, it’s a big part of our world. Only through intention can we change course. We can decide to live life differently, modeling to children that the stuff we accumulate is not what defines us. Perhaps then the media won’t be consumed by reporting on the latest toy, gadget, or fashion trend…and the people who are willing to physically assault each other in order to consume it.

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Black Friday (really? why are we still having this conversation?)

Recently, two locally owned restaurants announced they were closing their doors, and that prompted all sorts of Facebook discussion threads about why they had not succeeded.  I found myself more and more frustrated as I read the comments, an occasionally I chimed in with abrupt, impatient remarks that seem to be my trademark when I feel like people just aren’t “getting” it.

There are all sorts of factors that go into the demise of a small business. As someone who spent my early childhood hanging out in the back of my parents’ fledgling fried chicken and catfish restaurant The Red Rooster (yes, I’m aware of the irony that I haven’t intentionally eaten meat in over a decade and am currently flirting with veganism for the gazillionth time), I am aware of how hard it is to break even with a new business, especially a restaurant, regardless of how busy the place might appear.

But there’s one factor I’m currently in a tizzy about: the customers. Because, when it comes down to it, customers can make or break a new business, especially a local small business. And, the thing is, customers simply didn’t show up. Not enough to sustain these restaurants. I know…because I was there…and there’s only so much food I can eat…

Oh, they were there today in the final hours for the latest victim of my town’s poor business development planning. A line wrapped around the building, and every table was occupied. But customers are fickle pickles. Where were they a month ago?

Some were at home cooking dinner to save money due to a protracted feeling of being squeezed financially by bleak economic conditions. But plenty of others were out dining at the many mediocre chain restaurants that dot the interstate highway that cuts through town. A deep-fried Awesome Blossom in every mid-sized city, guaranteed to be greasily predictable, if not particularly appetizing.

And so here we are, on the eve of “the biggest shopping day of the year,” with customers plotting strategies for how to get the best bargains from the biggest box stores, supporting the retail equivalents of the chain restaurants that seem to keep on going…and going…while high-quality, affordable local small businesses are floundering. It’s a corporate world, and we’re ready and willing to contribute to the downfall of the mom-and-pop store.

We do this. Every day, every year. We say that we want small businesses to succeed, but we have a lousy way of showing it. We lament the decline in quality of restaurant meals, but we keep going back for seconds. We complain about how commercialized the holidays have become, but we continue to buy into the shopping frenzy, encouraging the advertising and the sales and the creeping consumerism that has led to more and more stores opening on Thanksgiving.

I’ve heard lots of friends say that they’re not going to participate in the retail chaos of Black Friday, but statistically, at least some of them will. And for what? A bunch of useless junk that will be forgotten in six months.

Plenty has been said about wasteful consumerism and our disposable culture. But I’d like to leave you with this thought: If you really, truly believe in small businesses…the way that politicians seem to think that you do…the way you say that you do when you answer survey questions…please stop feeding into the chain store madness.

It’s actually pretty easy. Just stop. Don’t shop.

Take the day off, avoid the insanity, and support local stores for this weekend’s Small Business Saturday. You’ll save money by being more conscientious about your purchases, and even if individual items cost more than what you’d spend at Walmart, you’ll save money by thinking before you buy. Plus, you’ll be putting money back into your local community, perhaps providing the income for a student to go to college or a family to enjoy a dinner at a, ahem, local restaurant.

Your kids will survive without the latest video game, and you’ll be just fine without the Rudolph sweater. If you do have kids, think about the message you’re sending if you go out on Friday (or worse, on Thanksgiving). With every shopping bag that you bring home, you’re teaching your kids that material possessions are important and that quality family time isn’t. And if you don’t have kids, well, get outside and enjoy the day…without the burden of more stuff.