Black Friday’s Bait and Switch

Author: Nick Clyde, Johns Hopkins University

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The last few holiday seasons have been marked by a regrettable trend: the extension of Black Friday opening hours into Thanksgiving Day for many stores. Black Friday is a fitting name indeed; the destruction of an important family tradition by rampant consumerism certainly invokes images of cancerous tumors. Unsurprisingly, this Thursday will be no different. Most large retail stores will open at 5 or 6 PM on Thanksgiving, with some staying open the entire day. However, there is one difference this year. There are a spate of stores who are refusing to open their doors on Thursday. “No,” they say, “there will be no purchases between these walls today. Save your money for tomorrow. We’ll gladly take it then.”

Black Thursday’s ascent to ubiquity occurred blindingly fast. Stores started opening on Turkey Day in 2011, sparking a limited amount of public outcry and a flurry of petitions. Despite this, eager shoppers still showed up to store openings to get those sweet, sweet deals on flat screens. So retailers got even bolder in 2012, pushing the openings earlier into the evening. This time it was too far, and so employees, who formerly were able to spend Thanksgiving with their families, began to fight back. But the buyers kept coming, rendering employee action moot. Thanksgiving was where the money was, and so employees had to work, or else. Thus, we have seen stores opening earlier and earlier. Now, families across the US have an early dinner and then head out in droves at 6 PM to stand in line for their blu-ray players and their trendy new coats, all at the expense of those who are forced to work.

Amid all of this protest over the earlier openings, there has been no shortage of polemics against American consumerism. Surely, the frenzy created by Black Friday sales is rather frightening. No one should ever have had to die so that someone could get their Xbox half-off. But everyone seems to have forgotten who stole Thanksgiving away from us in the first place. And now that stores are proclaiming their righteousness for having the self-restraint to abstain from the shameless profit-extraction that is the norm, many are even praising them for “having respect for the Thanksgiving holiday.” Yes, thank you, Costco and Nordstrom. Thank you for having the bare minimum of decency and respect for your employees for a tradition that’s as old as this nation. As if it was a totally normal and acceptable thing for them to even consider making their workers come in on Thanksgiving.

Black Friday’s bait-and-switch is a sinister move. Ever more attractive sales stoked the materialistic fires burning inside of us. The gaping holes in our hearts left by living in a society which alienates us from our work, from each other, and from ourselves were to be filled with laptop computers and 70% off jeans. Walmart, Target, Macy’s, and Best Buy knew this quite well. And so they tested us, trying to see just how far we were willing to go. And when we agreed to give up our family time in exchange for cheap commodities, they mocked us for our insanity. We have accepted this blame and turned the hatred in on ourselves instead of accusing those who decided to open early in the first place. It’s just as CEO Rich Milgram tells us: “This says less about the retailer and more about society as a whole. Target, Sears, Kmart and others are all doing what they need to do maximize sales and profits.” Of course! Heaven forbid anyone hurt those precious profits.

Now that a few retailers are retreating the line and giving us back what we deserved all along, are we to applaud them? Are we to take the bait and commend those CEOs who so graciously have refused to satiate our desires? Or is it finally time for us to see through the veil and begin to criticize the soulless profit-mongers who have created this feverish nightmare of consumerism in the first place? Of course, the agency of individuals is partly to blame here. Those who go out to shop on Thursday are certainly not helping the matter. Nevertheless, labor struggles and boycotts only treat the symptom of a diseased culture which runs much deeper.

Thanksgiving used to be a day on which we were supposed to be thankful. I remember being urged by my elders to consider all of the people in my life who made it wonderful, and to express my gratitude to those I love. But now, we are asked to think about what things we might have, if only we spend. “Buy, buy, buy! Return your wages to the very same people who dole them out to you, and perhaps if you are lucky, you might be just like them someday!” These are the messages we are fed by those who profit off of the societal sickness of consumerism. And then they have the gall to infect us with self-hatred for our actions. The time has long past for us to come to grips with the reality that the problem isn’t consumerism; the problem is capitalism.

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