November 27, 2012

100% Off the Mark

Well, it’s the Holiday Season again. The months from November through January here in the states are always buzzing with “Holiday Cheer” and “Merriment” and all manner of wondrous frivolity. It’s supposed to conjure images of families getting together and enjoying fine meals; children opening presents and playing with toys; hot cocoa and apple-cider ‘round the hearth and dozens of other warm and pleasant thoughts to counteract the cold darkness of the season’s weather. It’s supposed to call to mind “a simple time” of pleasures and friendliness, what with phrases like “Peace on Earth and good will toward men” (but definitely not women; that would be absurd!) being chanted throughout the season. The trouble is, I just don’t feel so festive and “merry” around these times anymore.

I don’t mean to sound like a Scrooge, and I do hold some genuine fondness for the holiday season, but it’s just gotten so much harder to appreciate it for the meaning it claims to instill. I fully recognize that part of my problem is deeply personal, and I have had some rough times of late that definitely contribute to my lack of enthusiasm, but upon further reflection, I think I’ve found a new culprit…

Black Friday killed the Holiday Season

Stop priming your outrage, Capitalism Enthusiasts; I’m not here to tell you how corporate excess is evil and how the massive spending is “bad for our soul” or whatever the lingo is these days. I’m not actually an “enemy of capitalism” like some think. I feel about Capitalism essentially the same way I feel about the old Dial-Up method of web-surfing. It fits the time in which it arose and is quite functional, but it’s not good enough and something much better will (rightly) take its place once the right minds are on it and the technology to enable it exists. Besides, there are plenty of people out there criticizing the capitalist excesses of “Black Friday” and I don’t want to jump on that band-wagon. I feel that anyone who knows what Black Friday is will already understand those arguments and will not need them repeated here. The reason I want to talk about Black Friday is because of a hidden cost (ha ha) to its very existence that often goes unnoticed. And the saddest part of all is that it’s actually right out there in front of us: people need to run these sale events.

Let me back up a bit before we dive into that, though, and give a brief (if not pretentious) history lesson on Black Friday and its ilk. For those who aren’t totally familiar with it, Black Friday is the name traditionally given to the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving Day (which is always a Thursday) and is associated with an unusually high-volume of shopping at most locations. Larger department stores in particular are targeted for shopping on this day, and there are frequently huge price reductions associated with the day itself. Since the volume is so high, the loss of money per item is made up by the sheer quantity of purchases, allowing most stores to sell at a price closer to cost. The result is often thought of as a good deal on all accounts; customers get a lot of product for less money, and stores see a welcome rise in profits due to the volume of sales.

While Black Friday may be a relatively recent phenomenon as far as history is concerned, it actually goes back at least a couple of decades in terms of the “tradition” it represents. Sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving have been expected for many years now, and people often use the day as a marker for the “beginning of Christmas shopping”, hence the continued association with retail purchases. With the more traditionally religious holiday of Christmas having long ago been overtaken in popularity (here in the States, at least) by a secular celebration of these kinds of capitalist excesses (let’s just call it Xmas) it’s unsurprising that large corporations would rush to take advantage of the “new tradition” that has emerged around it. The result is that every year, stores have opened earlier and stay open later on Black Friday to capitalize (see what I did there?) on the expected masses of shoppers looking to get the best deals. Regrettably, this “holiday” gets its name from the other thing it’s associated with most frequently: the mad rush and stampede of customers. Originally the term came from Pennsylvania and was meant to evoke the horrible vehicle and pedestrian traffic associated with the shopping. The last few years, however, it has taken a much darker turn. Every year that I have been cognizant of this event, I’ve heard on the news about people being trampled, bludgeoned, beaten, and even shot to death over deals and the animalistic desire to “beat the crowd” (apparently taken literally) to said sales.

Now, leaving aside the obvious stupidity of literally killing other people over trinkets, toys, clothes, and other UNESSENTIAL goods, there is a more insidious evil lurking underneath this tradition that I feel gets little to no attention in the public eye. For good reason, I imagine, but I’m not above blowing the whistle when I feel like people are being mistreated for no meaningful reason. I mentioned earlier that my problem is that “people run Black Friday” and I meant it, but the people I’m referring to aren’t the mindless zombies who endlessly consume the goods sold. Rather, I’m talking about the exploitation of the workers that literally have to manage the whole event. Countless men and women are called to be at work for incredibly long and arduous shifts and, on top of that, they are expected to remain courteous, respectful, and calm to the legions of shoppers who berate, badger, and literally trample them throughout the day.

In the interest of full disclosure before I continue, I’ve never worked in retail myself, so I have no first-hand knowledge of this day from such a perspective. I have a lot of friends who have and still do work in retail and whose experiences with Black Friday shoppers are often akin to horror stories, but they are, in fact, just stories to me. So if you feel that this only makes me some “bleeding heart” who “doesn’t know what he’s talking about”, then feel free to close the window and go back to whatever it was you were doing. Those who wish to follow me down this rabbit hole, read on and ye shall learn the horrors of which I speak.

As I said, the major outlets and shopping centers have been opening their doors to the Black Friday mob earlier and earlier over the years, but the last three, and 2012 in particular, have crossed a line. In 2009 and 2010, major stores (i.e. WalMart, Target, Kohls, Sears, etc.) began to open for Black Friday at around 4 or 5AM and remain open until midnight or later. Think about that for a minute. It’s one thing to open a store early to take advantage of buying time, but to open your store when most people would not have woken up and would in fact not be waking for at least another hour or two is preposterous. Bear in mind, I say this in an attempt to view this from the perspective of an employee of these establishments. Essentially, they are asked to come in even earlier (to prepare for opening, obviously) and many will be staying on the floor for hours past their normal shift limits. That’s already unreasonable by most “civilized” standards, but then in 2011 they opted to “make up for it” by having most retail establishments open the doors at midnight following Thanksgiving.

I’ve already heard the arguments for why this is an improvement. “Well they don’t have to get out of bed early this time…they can just work ‘the late shift.’” “If they start at midnight, the rest of the day won’t be as bad…we’re spreading it out to make it easier to handle!” Leaving aside how those arguments reek of rationalization in the name of profit, this is still an unacceptable way to treat your workers. What is the archetypal Thanksgiving Day for? It’s a time where families get together and sit down for a feast they likely won’t repeat for another year. It’s a chance for people who haven’t seen each other to gather and reunite, just like in that one vaguely incestuous Folgers commercial that everyone on the net has mocked to death. Hopefully not quite like that commercial, but you get the idea. It’s stressful enough on those families when one or more parties have to be at work the next day for a normal shift. Imagine what it must be like to have this kind of pressure on you the whole time you’re supposed to be relaxing. “How many more hours can I afford to spend here so I can get some sleep before work” should NOT cross ANYONE’S mind in the midst of carving the turkey. What if dinner took longer than usual to prepare? You just lost an hour or more of time and might have to miss dessert or even the whole meal! Doesn’t it already sound outrageous? It should.

But it can’t even hold a candle to what was done this year. 2012, the year that most people are still ironically concerned about the Apocalypse, was the year they finally pushed it too far. Stores of all stripes began advertising that they would open their doors at around 8PM…on Thanksgiving Day! The midnight openings create enough pressure, but imagine having to skip Thanksgiving dinner in its entirety! I don’t care how good the deal is, or how magnificent the products are. NONE of it is worth taking away what many people would consider one of the more sacred days on their calendar. Yes, I know there’s no religion associated with Thanksgiving. The warmth and tenderness meant to be associated with the holiday counts as sacred to me, and on a more personal note, especially this year. I’m lucky enough to have been with my family, but I personally know people who were dragged from their dinner tables by an obligation to their employers for Black Friday. “Disgraceful” doesn’t even describe it.

It’s a recession, times are hard and family and friends will be more important than ever to a lot of people. Most of those people, regrettably, are the ones who will likely be looking to retail jobs for their livelihood. To those who would say “Just take a day off”, I ask you “with whose time?” Most people who earn $8.00 an hour really need that $8.00 an hour and many can’t afford to lose time that might be needed in a real emergency. There is no “emergency” here other than the personal one created by these employers who hold little to no regard for their employees. The result is that many people, young and old, had to lose out on one of the precious few times where Americans allow themselves to relax and spend time with each other. If I’m thankful for anything this year, it’s that I am fortunate that I don’t have such an unfeeling taskmaster of an employer and got to truly relax this year. The prospect of having to spend a holiday at work still makes me sick to my stomach.

And on that note, let’s bring this to a close, and look at why this “killed the Holiday Season” for me. Well, it’s not because I suffer for it, I grant. I don’t even shop on Black Friday. Partly because my self-preservation instincts are stronger than I get credit for, but also out of a sense of solidarity with my friends who have to lose out on what everyone else gets to think of as a time of gains. But the reason the holiday season seems less wondrous is that Black Friday represents a dead end. There’s nowhere left to go with this concept except to consume more and more of the calendar with each passing year. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if, next year, they started the sales on Thanksgiving and just turned the whole day into an extended Black Friday. We already have “Cyber Monday” and “Small Business Saturday” and nearly all of the deals get extended into the weekend after Friday as it is. And of course, this whole thing is a self-perpetuating cycle: people line up early for the sales, so they make the sales begin earlier, so people line up earlier for the sales, so etc. ad infinitum.

The whole thing has gotten out of hand and it crushes what I used to look forward to: a chance to wind-down and just enjoy something as simple as a finely-cooked meal and a few stories. Why does it affect me? Because the atmosphere surrounding these days is tense and on edge at all times. People are literally dying over something as pointless as “a good deal” at a department store. The news explodes with stories about how bad the crowds are and commercials all say that “you need to get out here ASAP to take advantage of it before it’s gone!” It gets harder and harder with each passing year to associate this time with anything other than the excessive, cruel, and outright greedy nature of the businesses that exploit our desire to do something good.

I know that the fact that this affects me is supposed to be “my problem”, but shouldn’t it be everybody’s problem? Just a bit, even? Shouldn’t we all be at least a little bothered by how exploitative and mean-spirited this half-hearted excuse for a tradition has become? Yes, we need to find a way to accept reality, but I believe we also owe it to ourselves and our fellow human beings to try and shape reality at least a little. We give and receive presents this time of year to make one another feel good during dark, cold, and unfeeling times, don’t we? Not because it was the best bargain and we were willing to leave the Turkey cold on the table. Or at least, that’s what I’m left hoping is the case.

I hope you all had a wonderful, uninterrupted Thanksgiving. For those of you who didn’t, my heart goes out to you and I hope that next year will see fit not to punish you for a crime not committed. Well…not by you, anyway.

I’m Trevor and that’s my Frame of Mind.

1 comment:

  1. Well, FWIW, we had precisely this same conversation at our own dinner table on Thanksgiving. And everyone around the table felt exactly as you do. The whole thing is ridiculous, and has become something that the labor laws ought to forbid. (No, nobody at our table works in retail either--but it's pretty apparent to everyone how exploitative this whole Black Friday thing has become.)

    Unfortunately, I think your prophecy that Black Friday will soon extend to all of Thanksgiving Day itself will come true, perhaps even as early as 2013!

    Wish I had something uplifting to say, but I don't. I share in your gloom; if anything, you have understated it a tad.

    For decades now, I have felt that the holiday season was a big, crass, commercialized circus with a thin veneer of higher ideals layered on top. Now the thin veneer has worn through and the pretense of promoting civilized values is gone.