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Friday, Nov 18, 2011, 9:00 am

Time to Turn Out the Lights on Black Friday?

BY Kari Lydersen

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Shoppers gather at the Tyson's Corner Center Mall in Tyson's Corner, Va., for "Midnight Madness," a Black Friday event, on Nov. 26, 2010.   (Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Next week, the frenzied competition between retailers and shoppers that is Black Friday—the day after Thansgiving, when the Christmas shopping season supposedly begins—will become even more intense. Major outlets, including Walmart, Target and Best Buy, have announced that this year they will actually open on Thanksgiving night, as opposed to the wee hours of Friday morning. 

A recent New York Times article explores what this means both for shoppers and for employees of these stores, who now must cut short their Thanksgiving meals and time with family. Workers say that in this economy, they can’t risk saying no to a request to work Thanksgiving day—and many shoppers seem to feel just as compelled to wait in line for hours before stores’ openings to make sure they get first crack at the deals.

The Times reports the encouraging observation that many shoppers are dismayed at the even-earlier opening times, in part because of their concern for store employees. Reporter Stephanie Clifford compares this to the early days of the consumer rights movement – in the late 1800s and early 1900s—before it shifted to being primarily about consumers’ own health and safety as opposed to concern for workers.

Meanwhile, for this year at least, many workers and consumers sound unable to resist the move to open earlier, even if they oppose it. Clifford writes:

Anthony Hardwick, 29, who works at a Target store in Omaha, said he would have to leave Thanksgiving dinner with his fiancée's family so he could sleep before starting a shift around 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving, followed on Friday by a shift at his other job, at OfficeMax.

I’ve never gone shopping on Black Friday, so maybe I don’t understand just how good the deals are. But the idea that people feel compelled to wait in line for hours and lose sleep and family time to save some money brings up larger questions. I understand that much of the shopping is for Christmas presents, which are for family members, but the idea that people are foregoing valuable family time at Thanksgiving in order to be first in line to get a cheaper Christmas gift for what may be the same family members seems counterintuitive and disturbing.

I also understand – as some sources described in the Times story – that the whole ritual of Black Friday shopping is something family members often share and enjoy together, like a camping trip or rock concert. But given the economic stress so many families are under, and the myriad social and environmental problems caused by mass consumerism worldwide, as the adherents to Buy Nothing Day have long argued, this seems like one national and family tradition that is worth scrapping.

The whole U.S. economy is greatly affected by the strength of “holiday” sales beginning officially with Black Friday – the season accounts for 20 to 30 percent of the annual retail trade, by some estimates. So any significant decrease in spending this day and throughout the season would theoretically cost jobs in the United States and even in China or other countries in the global supply chain.

But it seems such a twisted addiction to consumerism is worth breaking, even if it causes pain in the short term.

Adbusters’ Buy Nothing Day website advises:

With catastrophic climate change looming, we the rich one billion people on the planet have to consume less! And if that's too extreme for grandma and the kids, try for a Buy Less Christmas. And maybe a buy local, buy fairer, buy indie Christmas. Whatever you decide, 'tis the season to reclaim our year-end celebrations and make them our own again.

Last year, Walmart described earlier starts for sales – Thanksgiving Day, with stores open all night – as a preventative response to frantic customers, who in 2008 trampled a worker to death at a New York store and continued to shove and push into the store even as other employees and then police tried to aid the injured man. Trampling and violence has also been reported at other big box stores in the early morning hours of Black Friday.

In just another indication of how the holiday shopping season has become a virtual force of nature, CNBC reports that holiday season weather has a distinct effect on consumer behavior and hence on the economy as a whole:

Warmer ... weather favors increased store traffic, which provides more opportunities to sell. And if consumers are less compelled to spend money on items they need in cold weather (those coats, hats and gloves), they have more disposable income to spend on non-seasonal gift items and electronics. That's when companies like Best Buy, Radio Shack and Sears benefit.

Assuming that shoppers are spending limited funds on electronics and other nonessential luxury items instead of warm clothes, it is scary to think what will happen if the weather takes a turn for the worse in February, or other unexpected needs come up.

In a post last fall, Richmond's Industrial Workers of the World website summed it up:

For years, “Black Friday” has been viewed as a signifier for how the consumer interprets economic strength. The more you buy, the better off we must be in the grand scheme of a pending economic collapse. More or less, in this one day consumers will send a clear message to the corporations, banks, creditors, financiers, political leaders, etc… that we as a collective body, still believe in the capitalist system and a consumption-led recovery. That if they produce it, we will buy it. Even if we can’t really afford it.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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