With the news that the 2011 Christmas shopping season opened with Black Friday sales up about 6+% from last year, it might be interesting to compare – on a personal level – how this Black Friday compared with previous Black Fridays. For more than five years, I’ve been one of those folks who showed up in line for the earliest sales in order to get the sales items under the Christmas tree and with the older kids, it’s become a family tradition to go out in the middle of the night with close family friends and tagteam different stores and sales. This year, the kids are getting older and we’ve made it abundantly clear that our summer family vacation was the big gift, so I almost didn’t go; Middle asked so that he and a friend could do some shopping on his very limitied budget and I agreed and spent my time people-watching with a cup of coffee. So what’s different this year?
The first difference is how the marketing gurus and retailers are now playing up the shopping with advertising and the sales of "loss leading" items to get people in the doors. I rarely shop at Toys R Us anymore but was there one morning last week and in a chat with the sales clerk, she commented that instead of opening at midnight like other retailers, they were actually opening at 9 PM on Thanksgiving night and that she’d be there even earlier. She shook her head and simply said, they’re taking our holiday from us. In the moment, she meant her employer while I saw it as the entire economic machine. Throughout the days prior to Thanksgiving, the media was filled with ads and reminders about the offers that would be available and how the earlier hours were there to be even more hospitable to the customer. While the ostensible thrust is great deals and savings for the debt-laden consumer, the reality is that this is purely another way to gin up sales figures for the retailers, another in the panting gasps of the consumerist mentality.
Second, there were far more small children out than I recall seeing when I first started going out years ago. Seven years ago, the stores that were open at 4 AM had lines snaking through the cold outdoors and were populated entirely by adults, more than a few of whom were grandparents. This year, the doors to the mall themselves were open by midnight and when I wandered through the food court about 2 AM, the child’s playarea had at least a half dozen small children running and playing. Are the parents so strapped that they’ll take the kids out at those hours in order to help assure that the tree has gifts?
Third, there are far more stores opening at the early/late hours than there were eight years ago; so much so that the mall itself opened its doors at midnight. When I first started going out, there were only a small handful that opened at 4 AM and a line would form outside a mall entrance, people prepared to enter when the mall doors were opened. By the time that I left at 330 AM for breakfast with the kids, roughly half of the mall stores were open and the place was crawling with more people at that hour than on a typical weekend evening. What’s also of note is that a number of those stores open early eight years ago are now consigned to the retail morgue – Linens N Things, Circuit City, KB Toys – and I wonder, how many of these stores now opening at these hours are also not long for this world?
Fourth, despite the news reports of shopper violence, it’s apparent that the retailers are pushing to maintain control. Walmart now staggers when certain items are put on sale and those interested have to come early for a ticket and then return later to a predetermined line. Other retailers have staff outside beforehand helping to maintain order and there was significant police and security presence at the Walmart and mall. It left a bitter taste in my mouth as it reinforces the notion that we consumers exist solely to enrich the corporations and must be controlled as they happily take our money.
Even after Black Friday had ended, the retailers were ginning up the sales machine for what they refer to as Cyber Monday. You don’t want to go out because you’re working the next day? Not to worry since you can now get all of the deals online! Because we have a UPromise credit card and take the rebates as they’re needed, my wife went online last night and noted that at some retailers, such as Sears, the rebates were not only higher at 10% of the sale price, but that using the credit card for the purchase would yield rebates of 21%. Rebating one fifth? It’s telling about the health not only of the retailer, but also of the credit card bank, which is Bank of America. The credit card rate is in the teens – we usually pay ours off monthly – and with most cardholders carrying a balance, the drive is to keep the balances high and collect the interest and fees for the bank’s bottom line.
What’s happening is a huge exercise in what financial types call pulling the demand forward. The premise is that there’s an organic demand for merchandise as people replace what they have or either shift upwards or downwards and that offering such deep discounts will cause them to buy what they need or want now instead of waiting until later. But the problem is that once that demand is pulled forward, what’s going to sustain it in the future? With declining real incomes and uncertainty as to jobs, people are likely to grab what they can now, but the wallet will be closed later.
And my spending through this year? With the kids growing and the checkbook shut, my purchases were minimal. The bulk of my time was spent nursing a cup of coffee and enjoying a very early egg breakfast with Middle and his friends. My expectation is that next year, it’ll simply be the breakfast.