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What The Media Doesn’t Understand About Black Friday Shoppers

Shoppers crowd a Bentonville, AR Walmart on Black Friday. CREDIT: AP
Shoppers crowd a Bentonville, AR Walmart on Black Friday. CREDIT: AP

Cable news producers cultivate eyewitness reports on their ordeals. Online rubberneckers click on videos promising the best fights between them. Internet commentators large and small deride them as a symbol of cultural decline.

But while the shoppers who stampeded into gigantic retail outlets on “Black Friday” are easy targets for sarcastic sniping in the media, they are also evidence of a far larger failure of the American economy.

For millions of low-income and middle-class families, the day’s deals are a necessity not a luxury. Wages have stagnated for working families since the turn of the century, producing a “lost decade” for working people’s quality of life. The slow recovery from the Great Recession has been driven mostly by low-wage job growth rather than by a resurgence in the kinds of jobs that provide enough headroom for a family to treat Black Friday as optional.

At the same time, the cost of keeping a roof over your head has accelerated significantly. Rent takes up over 30 percent of income for one out of every two households nationwide now, up from 38 percent in 2000. While poverty rates have remained fairly stable, the proportion of people living on the brink of poverty has grown significantly, and four Americans out of every 10 live paycheck to paycheck. Even after Congress passed the first minimum wage hike in more than a decade at the tail end of the Bush era, minimum-wage workers have less buying power than they did 40 years ago.

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The Friday after Thanksgiving was dubbed “Black Friday” by Philadelphia police in the early 1960s because of the added stress shoppers put on law enforcement. It supposedly also marks the point on the calendar when retail shops finally turn a profit on the year and switch to using black ink in their books. With retail sales supporting a huge cross-section of manufacturing, shipping, marketing, and service industry jobs, that tipping point is an important landmark for the economy as a whole.

Or at least it was. Modernity has rendered the date nearly obsolete. “Cyber Monday,” “Small Business Saturday,” and the general expansion of price-slashing sales into earlier November has expanded the tipping point from loss to profit from a single day to an abstract window late in the calendar. The phrase “Black Friday” is sticky enough in marketing terms that early data on sales get trumpeted by the largest, most respected media outlets in the country even though the methodology that produces those data are hopelessly flawed and the numbers are essentially meaningless.

High society’s dual obsession with Black Friday — mocking its participants on the one hand, hanging on every useless statistic about it on the other hand — serves no one well. In addition to ignoring the dangerous, unstable economic conditions that induce fits of deal-chasing fervor, the coverage tacitly endorses a variety of falsehoods that underlie modern retail economics.

If watching the country’s economic underclass scrap it out for doorbusters still seems funny in the context of general economic inequality, consider that the marketing around “Black Friday” and other retail holidays is designed to deceive shoppers in a variety of ways. First, the prices on offer probably aren’t actually very good. Retailers engineer inflated starting prices for goods so that they can be marked down by large percentages during sales and get people to buy. The starting price is a lie, and the sale price is calculated to provide the profit margin companies need. The average size of a discount offered by department stores jumped from 25 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2012, but the gross margins those companies reported on the goods they sell didn’t change at all over the same period, meaning that the apparent increase in discounts was a con engineered by inflating the starting prices of items.

“Black Friday” takes those deceptive retail tactics that companies practice during sales all across the calendar and combines them with other forms of manipulation to squeeze dollars out of the desperate. Stores design the physical layout of goods carefully to capitalize on shopper psychology and steer adrenaline-pumped people into bad purchases.

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Many of these same companies are also squeezing the profits tube from both ends, manipulating shoppers and exploiting workers simultaneously. If Walmart dropped its fixation on keeping labor costs as low as possible and followed the lead of competitors like Costco that provide good wages and steady benefits, it might very well stem shopper displeasure with poorly stocked shelves and unclean produce departments. And if retailers in general started putting more money into working people’s pockets, the resulting increase in family budgets would enable working people to spend more year-round.