What Black Friday Can Teach Us About Ourselves

Between Thursday, November 24th–Thanksgiving–and Sunday, the 27th, an estimated 226 million Americans went shopping. Nearly three quarters of the entire population of the United States poured out of their homes, into big-box and chain stores, and spent 52.4 billion dollars. Not “million.” Billion. On “Cyber Monday” digital shoppers spent an additional $1.25 billion. This sum represents the most ever spent in one day, which beat the previous record holder, last year’s Cyber Monday, by twenty-two percent. Economists and financial analysts refer to this holiday ritual, kicked off by “Black Friday,” as an annual stimulus package. This one requires no lobbying, no congressional debate, nor political infighting. This stimulus is endorsed and paid for by the majority of Americans, without question. Sociologists have long believed that we can learn a lot about ourselves when we examine the things that we hold most dear. Particularly as it comes after an autumn of fierce protest and in the midst of a broad social movement against economic domination and wealth inequality, this year’s holiday shopping extravaganza reveals a lot about American culture, and our relationship to capitalism.

Still from the film “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Photo from Google Images.

When all is bought and wrapped, holiday spending is expected to reach $466 billion this year. It is no wonder then that it is the month of December during which the budgets of most businesses go from the red to the black, a fact that the term “Black Friday” now signals. This period of frenzied shopping actually carries our national economy. Domestic consumption accounts for seventy percent of it, and much of that spending happens between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Given these facts, it is easy to view this period as nothing more than an orgy of consumerism. But if one looks below the surface with a sociological lens, one sees that the cultural significance of holiday shopping is multifaceted, particularly in light of our dire economic circumstances.

Holiday shopping has become one of the foremost rituals of Christmas, like singing carols, trimming the tree, opening the tiny doors of an advent calendar, attending midnight Christmas mass and boozy family parties, and leaving milk and cookies for Santa. Traditions, after all, are made up of rituals. But the cultural significance of the ritual of holiday shopping does not stop at the physical act of acquiring goods. No, it extends far beyond that. Black Friday and its ensuing chaos is a media event, a spectator sport, and for many, something they feel they must participate in to give their family a real Christmas.

Mass-promotion of the event itself plays out on televisions, computer screens, and in print for weeks before its arrival. News programs report on preparations for it, financial analysts predict its economic impact, and consumer research organizations poll the nation in hopes of accurate projections. As Thanksgiving dawns coverage turns to the amassing crowds outside of big-box and chain stores like Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Toys R Us, and Kmart. As the weekend-long event plays out, footage of frenzied masses running through aisles and of shoppers fighting and being restrained by police streams across our screens. This year, the pepper-spraying Walmart shopper of California took the star position in the news cycle, but was given a run for her money by a viral video featuring a group of shoppers rioting over $2 waffle irons. The sad news included the death of a West Virginia man who suffered a heart attack in a Target store, and two separate incidences of violent robberies of shoppers in Walmart parking lots in California. These four incidents were heavily sensationalized because as they saying goes in the newsroom, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

A shopper occupation at Best Buy in Mesquite, Texas. Photo by Larry W. Smith of the European Pressphoto Agency for the NY Times.

The media attention given to Black Friday and the following weekend turns it into a spectator sport. Millions of people tune in to watch the chaos unfold on newsreels and YouTube videos, and some turn out for the event out of curiosity, like Ellie Fox, a seventy-two year old woman from Chicago who told a New York Times reporter that participating in the nationwide day of spending was on her “bucket list.” Others turned out simply to observe, while many shoppers approach the event as if preparing for sport or for battle, studying circulars and crafting a strategy and schedule. Some travel in teams and consider camping outside of stores a part of holiday fun, and tradition. For many, this is a tradition that is shared with and passed to younger generations. Featured in the same New York Times article were a grandmother, her daughter-in-law, and grand-daughter, excited to begin their night of shopping at Toys R Us. Videos of store openings show customers running toward carts and through aisles, and some reports indicated a celebratory mood.

Reading about the shopping weekend reminded me of a scene I once saw in Santa Barbara, California. I was riding my bicycle to a downtown café when I noticed a long line of people snaking down the sidewalk. It happened that the café to which I was headed was on the same block as the line, and as I parked my bicycle, I realized that the line began at the Apple store. “Ah ha,” I thought, “this must be for a new version of the iPhone.” As I sat at an outdoor table at my café, next to the Apple store and the line of eager consumers, I was amazed to hear the people gathered send up cheers of raucous applause for each customer who exited the store with a new iPhone in hand. The crowd treated leaving with the product as if it were a triumph–an achievement worthy of recognition and applause. I had never seen people celebrate consumption like this, and the scene and its significance stayed with me.

I suppose in a context of limited resources, getting your hands on the thing you desire can be considered an achievement. The thing is, in American society, there is almost no limit to the material resources available to us. Their attainability, however, is increasingly limited for the majority of the national population. We are in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In fact, many economists say that this one is worse. National unemployment is near the highest it has ever been, and the social safety net of the welfare state that carried people through the Great Depression is a shell of its former self. In this context, many know that they cannot afford Christmas gifts for their children and grandchildren, nor everyday needs, without rock bottom discount prices. This is why Black Friday and Cyber Monday posted record highs in both shopper turnout and dollars spent. People are hungry for a solution to their problems. Gisele Avila explained this to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times: “I want a TV. I have to wait for Black Friday because I can’t afford one any other day.”

Holiday spending increases every year. Given economic inflation, this is to be expected. What is notable about this year’s increase is that it is the largest since 2007. Notably, the increase of 2007 occurred at the beginning of the collapse of the U.S. housing market, which triggered the global economic crisis that now engulfs us. Coming back to the point I made at the beginning of this post, what we protect and strive for in these dark times illuminates that which we hold most dear. While on the surface what we hold dear might seem to be Xboxes, waffle irons, and Barbies, these material goods are simply the manifestation of the norms of our culture–the values, beliefs, and desires–that lie beneath and structure our behavior. In times of crisis, we cling to them, and express them the best way we know how.

Image by Adbusters. http://www.adbusters.org

In a recent article for NPR Scott Simon wrote that people who have little money spend it on Christmas gifts for their families in order to demonstrate that they are “resourceful and strong, that they can still provide for their families.” From a sociological perspective, he is right. What we hold most dear is the ability to provide for our families, to earn an honest living, to live comfortably without worry of losing our homes, and the safety, happiness, and prosperity of the next generation that these things are supposed to guarantee. The presents under the tree on Christmas morning are not just material objects, they are signs that all is well, that everything is as it is supposed to be. They signal compliance with our cultural norms and values, and they make us feel that we are achieving the American Dream. The things we buy communicate to our families, friends, colleagues, and the outside world that we abide the expectations of our culture. By doing so, we maintain our position–at least symbolically–in the mainstream of society; we keep ourselves out of the ostracized margins.

Sociologist Émile Durkheim used the french term anomie to describe the disappearance of norms, and the disconnect between expectations and what is actually attainable in daily life, that happens during periods of upheaval and dramatic change. In its Latin origin, the term means “without law.” If the law of our land, at least as we believe it, is that you will be able to provide for yourself and your family if you work hard, then we are certainly living in lawless times. Mass layoffs from jobs, home foreclosures and evictions, the disparity between real income and inflation rates, forced furloughs, and a void in public resources like education and health care have many of us feeling lost without a compass. Durkheim explained that the condition of anomie causes people to feel alienated, and as if they lack purpose. In these conditions people will do whatever they can to try to maintain a grasp on normalcy. Chaos and seemingly paradoxical behavior often ensues.

Well, in American culture, normal is having things. This is why record numbers of people turned out for Black Friday this year. This is why, when the Hollister clothing store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City did not open at midnight when those waiting on the sidewalk expected it to, they busted through the doors and looted the merchandise as shocked employees looked on. This is why a woman in California pepper sprayed fellow shoppers to give herself a competitive edge in the race to the cache of Xboxes, and why a crowd went wild for waffle irons. It is not what these goods can do that fueled these instances of extreme shopping (and stealing), but what having these goods signifies. Having them means that life is normal, and that everything is okay.

In a recent article for The Daily Beast, Lee Siegel wrote about the strange simultaneity of the nationwide Occupy movement and the most spendiest Black Friday on record. He framed the two phenomena as a dichotomy. On the one hand, he sees shoppers clinging to the abusive capitalist system with all that they have, and on the other, he sees protestors who have given up on that system, and now focus their energy on changing it for the better. He sees these two groups of people as ideal types, discretely different, found on opposite ends of a spectrum of consumerism and radicalism. But the thing is, reality is never so black and white, and people are more complicated than that. Considering more than seventy percent of the U.S. population shopped in stores between Thanksgiving and the Sunday that followed it, it stands to reason that there were among those shoppers many who recognize their place among “the 99 percent,” and who identify with the values of the Occupy movement. It is even likely that some Black Friday shoppers have participated in the movement to varying degrees. While it might seem a contradiction for a person to have hands in both pots, the reality is that most of us exist somewhere on the spectrum, as opposed to staunchly camped at one end. Both reactions to our dire economic situation–protest, and shopping–appeal to many of us.

In fact, most people who turn out for the nationwide bargain hunt are among the Americans who are hurt the most by the capitalist economic system. They are those with the least amount of money to spend, and that is why they are there. The upper-middle and upper classes need not concern themselves with lining up on the sidewalk because they do not need bargain-basement prices to give their families a Christmas, or to meet their everyday needs. Stores that cater to wealthy customers do not offer much in the way of discounts throughout the holiday shopping season, yet despite that, stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom post record sales during the month of December. Just last week, Neiman Marcus sold out of limited edition Ferarris. Ferarris. Cars that sold for $395,000 a piece sold out in minutes. Far from being slowed by the economic crisis, wealthy Americans are spending like it is their job. The luxury stores where they shop are reporting the highest growth rates among retailers.

These trends in shopping for high-end and luxury items, taken together with the grossest (in terms of sales) Black Friday of all time, are indicative of the ever-growing wealth chasm that divides our nation–the chasm that the Occupy movement and its supporters are speaking out against and seeking to change. But change is never easy. In periods of anomie, we cling ferociously to what is familiar, to what we know as normal. In doing so, hoping for change yet perpetuating the system that we know hurts us, our families, and our future, we reveal the contradictions and paradoxes of contemporary American culture. We are people who know that things are not okay the way that they are, whether we are those who reach for ethical and socially responsible goods in an effort to not do further harm, whether we turned out for Occupy this fall, or whether we are now unemployed. We know that things cannot continue, yet we are unable to imagine an alternative, so we hold on to what we know.

It would be foolish to place blame on Black Friday shoppers for behaving the way they did, or to fault them for not protesting instead. Whether we are conscious of it or not, each of us is under the influence of very strong social forces at every moment of our lives. The pressure of force from corporations, the corporate media, and the power elite are at their strongest now because the values they steward are under attack. Promotions for Black Friday and Cyber Monday were the most prominent, sustained, and convincing they have ever been, and the media furor leading up to the event was intense. Simultaneously, the Occupy movement suffered a coordinated nation-wide attack organized by city officials and police chiefs, and carried out by para-militarized police forces.

Both tactics, promotion of corporate interests, and the dismantling of Occupy encampments, are intended to divide people who might otherwise be a unified block. This age-old divide-and-conquer strategy is effective. Members of the ninety-nine percent become “competitive shoppers,” willing to do whatever it takes to get their hands on discount goods, and Occupy encampments are dispersed, removed from prominent public space, and suffer ideological fractures as outside pressures mount. But, Occupy is not going away. Though the mainstream and corporate media barely mentioned the widespread Occupy actions that occurred on Black Friday across the nation, they were there, mic-checking Walmart, Best Buy, and Macy’s shoppers, and offering suggestions for how to Occupy Christmas.

Suggestions for how to have Christmas without corporations posted in a shopping mall. Posted at http://www.adbusters.org/campaigns/bnd.

It makes sense that Occupy would be present at Black Friday, because the day represents the heart of the problem that Occupy was designed to confront. The concept of Occupy Wall Street was created by Adbusters, the culture jamming organization whose aim is to draw attention to and disrupt globalized corporate rule. In the end though, it is our reliance on the goods made by large corporations that enables their power and domination. The problems that stem from our collective relationship with corporations was well stated by Occupy demonstrators during a mic check at a Walmart in San Diego.

A paradigmatic shift in consciousness is required for any change to come of this movement, and for that shift to occur, we will have to reevaluate the values that are thrown into relief by Black Friday. To challenge the power and influence of corporations in our lives, we have to reduce our reliance on them to provide not just our material needs and desires, but our self-esteem, and our measures of success and achievement. We must tease these out of material relations, and place them back among the relationships we have with the people in our lives, in order to realize change. Change is possible. It begins with us.


4 thoughts on “What Black Friday Can Teach Us About Ourselves”

  1. Nice analysis, and I agree with most of it.

    But I do question one point. You say that you “suppose in a context of limited resources, getting your hands on the thing you desire can be considered an achievement.” If it were this simple, wouldn’t people just buy more stuff second-hand? A lot of the things people are fighting over – like $2 waffle irons – can be had second-hand (and working just fine) at that price. One could probably provide a child with a Christmas pile of second-hand toys, games, clothes, and books from garage sales for less than the cost of filling a cart at Walmart. So I think it does go beyond just “getting hands on” things – it’s about getting hands on NEW things. A minor but I think important distinction. It’s not just about function of items. The “dreams” need to be embodied in NEW things.

    I don’t think that contradicts your analysis – but I think it’s a distinction that does matter.

    1. Ellie, absolutely! That is an important distinction. Thank you for pointing that out. Both for economic and environmental sustainability reasons, the general ignorance of buying used and/or repurposing goods is something that really irks me about American society. There is so much stuff out there! It would be fascinating to see stats on how many people regularly buy used and/or repurpose. I have never seen these. I think I am going to look around. I’m sure it is contextual to some extent. Places with more artsy/indie folk are more likely to have higher rates of these behaviors. I am a craigslist faithful, and I have seen in some places it is no more than a junk yard, and in others a shoppers goldmine, which means people see the system differently and use it differently from place to place. I’d love to know more about your thoughts on these practices. Also, if you care about them, you might enjoy reading this article I wrote for Conducive Magazine. Also, check out this blog called “Unconsumption.”

      1. Thanks for the links!

        I’m actually sort of fascinated with the whole second hand / repurposing / frugalism thing and where it fits in to sociology. I’ve been wondering myself if there is any good researh on this stuff.

        While I hate to be critical of reduced consumption (lord knows we need it), I do wonder about status and identity issues that might be tied up with stuff like shopping second-hand, garbage-picking, lifestyles decisions to reduce / reuse / repair / repurpose etc. On one hand, many people do this stuff because they are very poor, and having less stuff and fewer options to afford new things is a mark of low status. But on the other hand, your comment about “places with more artsy/indie folk” says something about a certain kind of cultural milieu and positive social status, doesn’t it? Could it be argued that among certain social groups, being a “non-consumer” is a marker of something positive about the person, part of a certain identity? Or is it possible that this movement (if it is indeed a movement) can span socio-economic classes? (Maybe it’s both a social status thing among some people and a practical thing among others?) Or is this just another “alternative lifestyle” that makes the members of the lifestyle feel better on a personal level without having huge impact on America’s consumption habits?

        Then there is the whole related topic of “do it yourself” movements. Things like chicken-keeping, gardening, canning, knitting all suddenly seem to be popular – and also maybe kind of chic and status-y among the “artsy/indie” set? Is this stuff “liberating” insofar that it reduces reliance on a capitalist system? Or does it have the potential to be reactionary and undermine gender equality? Or just another “lifestyle choice” / status-marker without a lot of real impact?

        I don’t know what the answers are – just that I have been wondering about this stuff a lot lately.

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