Is Black Friday getting too commercialized? Are retailers, in their efforts to squeeze more profits from the holiday, undermining its meaning?
In a quainter, more hidebound America, the America of 2002, we didn’t celebrate Black Friday until the sun had set on Thanksgiving and risen the next morning.
If you couldn’t wait for the festivities to start, you camped, huddling with your loved ones in big-box parking lots, forming strategic alliances with those ladies in the matching T-shirts who seemed hellbent on seizing control of the Xbox aisle. Commerce is always the cornerstone of community.
But as Black Friday grew more popular, retailers began to expand its province. First, 5 AM openings became fashionable. Soon thereafter, the 5 AM openings turned into midnight openings.
Last year, Toys ‘R Us offered Black Friday deals at 9 PM on Thanksgiving evening. This year, The Washington Post reports, retailers are annexing even greater chunks of the day we’ve traditionally reserved for high-calorie gratitude. Kmart will offer Black Friday door-busters at 6 AM on Thursday. Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, and other retailers will all offer Black Friday deals on Thursday too, albeit not quite so early as Kmart.
This tactic—dubbed “Black Friday Creep”—has proven controversial. Workers at Target and Wal-Mart are introducing petitions at Change.org, asking their employers to let them spend the holiday at home. Thanksgiving loyalists complain that retailers are ruining a day that is meant for “food, families, and traditions,” not shopping.
But if the sanctity of Thanksgiving is in question, so too is the sanctity of Black Friday. And in many ways, that’s actually a rarer and more culturally valuable asset to protect.
Think, for a moment, about Black Friday’s ascension. According to the National Retail Federation, at least 71 million U.S. citizens are planning to shop this weekend. Even with the premature openings, many shoppers simply can’t wait and are already staking out their places in line.
When was the last time you heard of anyone who was so eager for Easter to arrive they spent seven days sleeping in a church parking lot just so they could commandeer the first pew? How many people design proprietary t-shirts to celebrate their love for the Fourth of July?
Black Friday has no federal sanction. It draws upon no centuries-old tradition. The Hallmark Channel has yet to sentimentalize its virtues in dozens of made-for-TV movies about the way the pursuit of deeply discounted toaster ovens can mend old family wounds. And yet millions of people celebrate Black Friday now, some casually, others with great ardor, because it stirs them in some way.
Like Thanksgiving and Christmas, Black Friday celebrates bounty and benevolence. With Thanksgiving, however, you might suddenly wonder: Are you gorging yourself on your fifth piece of Mile-High Caramel Apple Pie with the proper degree of deferent reflection? With Christmas, the pressures to craft the perfect doily table runners, go caroling with orphans, and successfully navigate all the other expectations and obligations of the day that it’s no wonder so many folks need a steady drip of Holiday Nog to make it through the season.
Black Friday lacks the nobler pretenses of its forebears. It’s the St. Patrick’s Day of shopping, a day devoted to explicitly performative consumption. On Black Friday, buying four big-screen TVs you don’t need isn’t stupid, it’s epic. Waiting in line for a few hours isn’t a nuisance, it’s the way we show gratitude that we live in a country where we have heated mattress toppers—mattresses for our mattresses, with soothing, highly targetable and granular temperature control! Blessed with such abundance, is it any wonder we sometimes descend upon a stack of $2 waffle makers like a pack of starving piranhas?
Because Black Friday is so deliberately bacchanalian, a suburban Mardi Gras where the beads have been upsized into brightly colored boxes filled with children’s toys and the goal is to test the absolute load-bearing capacity of today’s all-plastic shopping carts, it’s natural to focus on its most negative aspects—the deaths that have occurred when crowds got out of hand, the lesser acts of mayhem that sometimes take place as shoppers get swept up in the scrum of the housewares aisle.
Ultimately, though, Black Friday is more about accord than chaos—witness the increasingly common matching t-shirts, the frequent invocations about Black Friday as a cherished “family tradition.” In addition, Black Friday’s not just a highly inclusive holiday that draws participants from all creeds, colors, classes, and political persuasions—it’s a holiday that does so in shared public spaces. And outside of jury duty and events like St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras, where the vomit quotient and general chaos are much higher, where does that happen anymore? Thanksgiving and Christmas are largely private affairs, celebrated at home with only select invitees in attendance. Black Friday is for anyone who wants to show up.
That so many do—especially when websites like Gilt and Groupon have made 50 percent off the new normal—suggests our hunger for moments of comity, the solace we derive from affirming that at least the common pursuit of next-generation iPads at near-wholesale prices still binds us as a nation.
Like all holidays, however, Black Friday derives its power in large part from its ephemeral nature. It only happens once a year. The best deals go quickly. You spend weeks recruiting team members, scouting store layouts, devising the route plans and nutritional strategies that competitive endurance shopping requires, and then, poof, after all that anticipation and rehearsal, the whole thing’s over, just 24 short hours after it began.
Cannibalizing Thanksgiving in the name of Black Friday is a grand humanitarian gesture and probably good business practice as well. At least in theory, longer Black Friday hours and more enduring specials should result in less crowding, fewer confrontations, a safer holiday, smoother commerce.
But less time waiting in lines will also mean less time for family bonding. Deals that last longer will reduce the need for extensive strategizing and planning, which will also likely reduce the excitement and satisfaction that Black Friday’s most diehard adherents derive from the day. And when $100 flat-screens become absolutely easy to acquire, $100 flat-screens will no longer be magic wands that transform mere friends into comrades for life. The true value of hardcore consumerism can’t be measured in dollars and cents alone.