Photo: Chris Hondros / Getty
For sheer, naked consumerism, it’s hard to beat Black Friday–Thanksgiving’s after party. This year, consumers responded by spending $1 billion more than last year.Of course they’re manipulated by special promotions and artificial inventory shortages at panic-inducing price levels that encourage shopper stampedes, if not outright violence, reports of which abounded by Friday evening.
Even those who support free markets and more laissez-faire regulatory policies can’t help but feel disdain for this display of naked, aggressive avarice – and I’m not talking about the customers. Store opening times on Black Friday have crept back over the past several years, but they have usually remained on Friday.
Small wonder, then, that the current popular manifestation of anti-corporate sentiment seized on Black Friday as a day of action. Occupy protests around the nation targeted large retail stores in an effort to interfere with sales on Friday. In San Francisco, for instance, protestors blocked the entrance to an Apple store and proclaimed the retail location “closed” – and enforced that closure until police arrived to break up the demonstration.
In Oakland and San Francisco, Occupiers blocked cable cars and blockaded the Market Street shopping district, telling buyers to honour “Don’t Buy Anything Day.” Seattle Occupiers held a rally near the downtown shopping district to encourage consumers to shop at locally owned stores rather than big-box chain locations. Occupiers in Portland tied their anti-corporate message to an anti-fur march past some of the nation’s largest retailers. “Fur really only benefits the 1 per cent,” said Justin Kay of the Animal defence League.
In the epicentre of the Occupy movement, New York City’s Wall Street, activists planned for national action. They tried to organise disruptions at Target, Best Buy, and Macy’s locations around the country, protesting their early opening times. Their Facebook page proclaimed that “Target, Best Buy, and Macys all intend to open at midnight on Black Friday, depriving thousands of workers from a thanksgiving dinner with their families to improve corporate profits,” and that “Workers are fighting back and OWS stands in solidarity.”
From Shoppers’ High to A New Low
Not all that long ago, promotions for this day were limited to a few loss leaders and were mainly comprised of good discounts on everyday merchandise. When I last worked in retail almost 30 years ago, the day after Thanksgiving was gruelling, but nothing like what we see now. In those days, Black Friday featured normal discount sales and only a few special promotional efforts, since people tended to shop heavily on their last free day before the Christmas rush. These days, Black Friday almost seems like gladiatorial combat.
Do I exaggerate? Last week, a woman pepper-sprayed fellow Black Friday shoppers in a Los Angeles-area Wal-Mart, injuring 20 people. The attack is less noteworthy than the context, however. This Black Friday incident actually took place on Thursday night – Thanksgiving – at 10:20 pm, 20 minutes after Wal-Mart signaled to shoppers that Black Friday prices and merchandise were now available. How did they signal this? By blowing a whistle, which launched a frenzied attack on the merchandise that destroyed signage, smashed some of the goods on sale, and had some shoppers cowering in fear in the aisles.
Despite the incivility and the protests, despite the moribund economy, Black Friday looks like a knockout – for retailers who had their best Black Friday since the recession started, growing sales by 7 per cent year over year.
Foot traffic rose 5.1 per cent at retail locations, which means that people were hardly discouraged from venturing into the maelstrom of aggressive marketing and protests. The sales growth was the best the retail sector has seen since 2007’s 8.3 per cent year-on-year improvement, and the one-day haul of $11.4 billion is the best on record.
Clearly, the Occupy movement failed to discourage turnout at the larger retail stores where this tracking takes place. In reading the news reports, it’s equally clear that some of the consumers that the Occupiers wanted to convince only scoffed at their protest of shopping at Christmas. The Associated Press interviewed shopper Celia Collins in San Francisco, who assessed the Occupiers thusly: “I think they’re a bunch of … crybabies.” Collins pointedly told the AP that she had worked her way through school, paid off her student loans, and had “every right to enjoy Black Friday.”
Enjoy? Well, perhaps some enjoy the challenge of finding deals and avoiding riots in the stores, which is why retail doesn’t need government intervention to discourage Black Friday’s excesses. If the shopping environment turns unpleasant enough, people will turn to online retail – which also had a record performance over Thanksgiving and Black Friday, gaining a 26 per cent increase in advance of Cyber Monday.
The revulsion at the greedy excesses of this weekend will have others questioning their choices in the future, as well as the meaning of the holidays they shop to celebrate. However, the corporations that provide these retail environments are responding to the consumer – and when consumers decide they want a different environment, they will provide it. Blocking access to stores where consumers clearly want to shop does nothing but point out the sheer impotence of a movement whose media coverage has far outstripped its influence. This Black Friday has exposed the Occupiers as the fringe political and social movement that they have been all along.