Black Friday May Be A Consumerist Nightmare, But Don’t Blame Shoppers For Trying To Make Ends Meet

Patrick Bissett Freelance Journalist
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Well, it’s that time of year again – holiday season. With just a month and change left before the big day, thoughts are turning to buying gifts, hanging decorations, and visting relatives – even the ones nobody likes. Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, particularly in Buffalo.

We’ve just gotten through thanksgiving, and before we break out the eggnog and ugly sweaters, remember there can’t be Thanksgiving without Black Friday.

Black Friday is now firmly established as the busiest shopping day in the United States. Every year, shoppers form early lines to avail of doorcrasher sales across the country. And, every year, those queues disintegrate into orgies of pandemonium once, and sometimes before, the doors open. In recent years retailers, eager to generate as much footfall as possible and to get the jump on competition have taken to opening earlier and earlier, with many big box stores now starting on Thanksgiving day.

Of course, the vista of shoppers swarming into Walmarts across the U.S. makes great news fodder. Not only is it remarkably easy and cheap to capture, but it gives blowhards the opportunity to moralize and point fingers at perceived declining societal values, and rampant consumerism. However, what the talking heads on CNN and NBC neglect to discuss is the reason why people are willing to stand in the freezing cold for hours. The reason should be pretty obvious – these people aren’t wealthy – they’re poor. Black Friday gives people a chance to purchase items that are otherwise unaffordable, to get holiday gifts at a discount, and to save money on regular, everyday purchases. The basic philosophy of Black Friday is cheap products, at cheap prices.

Electronics are consistently the most popular purchases which puts immense pressure on manufacturers to deliver the goods at the lowest possible price point. They manage this by cutting corners, using cheaper components, or offering minimal features. Electronics makes up some 53 percent of sales (and woe betide the cameraman who doesn’t get a shot of an ethnic minority with a flatscreen in his shopping cart), but these really aren’t big ticket items. The average shopper spends some $407 over the Black Friday weekend, and while that is by no means an insignificant amount of money, it’s certainly not going to buy a top-of-the-line 3D LED and it’s still quite a lot less than the average American will spend on Christmas shopping; a recent Gallup poll puts the number at $781, an increase of $77 from last year.

The holiday season has at its centre a massive contradiction. It is supposed to be a time of good will, of friends and family – and still for some – of embracing religious traditions. The reality for many though, is much, much different. The holiday season is stressful, a source of dread and an unwelcome drain on finances. Little wonder then, that scenes resembling frenzied aid distribution in famine-ravaged countries should find their way onto the evening news. This too, has become part of our Thanksgiving tradition.

But is it too much to grant those who take part in these chaotic scenes a little humanity? Is it too much to ask that we reflect on the circumstances that drive people to stand in the freezing cold for hours on end in the hope of saving a few bucks? It is correct to denounce the commercialization of the holidays and denegration of traditional values, but in so doing we should not conflate those who are just trying to make ends meet with those who are profiteering. Doing that makes us all look ugly.

Patrick Bissett is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Ontario.