NP(B)F

If any country could make a holiday out of going to the mall, it's the U.S.

On Black Friday I suppose I am expected to deliver some sort of trenchant anti-consumerist monologue. Unfortunately I think that the lack of consumer spending is exacerbating our current economic difficulties. This leads a lot of dolts to claim that spending money is intrinsically good and should be considered a patriotic duty, or they advance the notion that we can shop our way out of a recession. This fails to draw the crucial distinction between spending money you have, which is a good thing, and spending money you don't have, which merely digs us into a deeper hole individually and collectively.

The more interesting question on Black Friday is whether one enjoys holiday shopping as an experience irrespective of ability or desire to buy lots of crap. Since I am financially able to afford some gifts for the first time in five years I would be a candidate to hit the mall tomorrow – if not for the fact that I finished shopping a week ago without leaving the comfort of my home.

You and I both know that internet shopping makes a lot of sense. We get the best prices and devote nearly no time at all to what could otherwise be a long day in and out of the car. For me the choice was simple. But I can't shake the feeling that the last thing Americans really need is another way to avoid having contact with one another. More retail activity migrates online every day, though, and it is only a matter of time until the only people doing in-store holiday shopping are like the people who ride Amtrak or pay for things in cash – people who either fear change or love nostalgia. It's very difficult to construct a valid argument in favor of participating in the Black Friday mob without resorting to one or both.

I'm not criticizing people who choose to join the crowds. If you enjoy it, go for it. I do not. I do wonder, though, for how much longer this phenomenon can hold out in the face of relentless pressure from cheaper and easier online shopping – not to mention from our increasing aversion to leaving our homes and interacting with one another.

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21 Responses to “NP(B)F”

  1. jeffey Says:

    "But I can't shake the feeling that the last thing Americans really need is another way to avoid having contact with one another."

    I think you're looking at this the wrong way. Shopping isn't a good social experience, especially not painting black beneath the eyes and donning footballer gear to fight crowds on black friday. Instead, one would hope the relative ease of shopping online for gifts allows more free time, rather than dedicating whole days to "go shopping for gifts" that people find themselves doing. Online shopping benefits from the only-get-what-you-need(want) model as well, which is good news for the right type of spending.

  2. Dennis-SGMM Says:

    As an Old Guy, I remember when the steel industry went overseas and all of those one-industry towns in the Midwest became the Rust Belt. Then the textile industry left the South and many of the one-industry towns there suffered for that. The lesson was clear: if you live in a one-industry town and that industry goes away then you're in trouble. Now I'm told that three-fourths of our economy is based essentially on shopping. We've become a one-industry country and because many of us are no longer able to afford much more than the necessities that one industry is sinking. If people had those groovy, high-tech jobs we were promised as the jobs they had fled overseas in pursuit of cheap labor this might not be happening. It was a classic bait-and-switch followed by the creation of a nationwide Ponzi scheme. Now the marks aren't able to borrow any more money to feed into it it's suffering the inevitable fate of all Ponzi schemes. We are going to live through some interesting times.

  3. grumpygradstudent Says:

    This post didn't have any cusswords in it! Amazing!

  4. Cassie Says:

    Forget cash, do you realize that some people actually still pay for goods with checks?

  5. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    [I]t is only a matter of time until the only people doing in-store holiday shopping are like the people who ride Amtrak or pay for things in cash – people who either fear change or love nostalgia.

    Dude, you've obviously never ridden Amtrak on the Northeast corridor.

  6. Peggy Says:

    Don't forget those too poor to afford internet access and/or a credit or debit card. Like Cassie says, some people still use checks–but some people still don't even have a checking account. The school's finance office collects a heck of a lot of payments in cash from our poorer clientele (and that's the segment that isn't poor enough to qualify for free/reduced lunch/books!).

    And, as much as I love online shopping (and I do), there's still something to be said for browsing. Your post reminds me a little bit of the time that the head of our school said that there was no point in having libraries and that Our Fair City had wasted its money on building a new central library–a beautiful space, absolutely gorgeous, full of books and inviting, welcoming in those who want to browse. He favored putting a kiosk in every CVS with a Netflix-style interface that let you order the book you want sent to your home.

    Yes: that's much more convenient when you know what you want. But when I go shopping, sometimes I just want to take a walk and look at shiny goods on display–not buy anything. Sometimes I have an idea of what I might like–say, a pair of shoes for work–but I'm not sure what style or color. I want to walk around and see what's out there, hold it, try it on, etc. When I'm in the library, I'll just walk around reading spines until I see something interesting. I absolutely do use the library's online book finder to order a particular book that I know I want sent to my branch for me to walk in and pick up, but that's not always what I want.

    jeffey's right that shopping on Black Friday isn't a good "social experience" in terms of meeting new friends, but I know a few people for whom it's a family bonding experience–it's our team vs. theirs!–and some who enjoy the competitive thrill. I don't go shopping on Black Friday; I worked it in retail twice, and that was enough for me. But on other days, I enjoy shopping with a friend as a social experience; I like browsing and finding things I didn't know existed (and now ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE!!!); I like getting out of the house sometimes.

    I think we are generally in the midst of a huge wave of social change, but I don't think shopping in person will ever go out of style. I've sat on the couch next to someone else shopping via our laptops on many occasions, but there are still days when I'd rather go to the stores.

  7. Susan of Texas Says:

    Seventy percent of the economy was consumer driven. We were able to buy consumer goods because we were busy selling houses and housing materials and goods to each other. We got the money to do this by going into debt. The manufacturing base is insufficient to provide enough jobs. The retail and housing industries will not recover. In time some remaining industries such as the medical industry–commonly named as one of the drivers of future prosperity–will collapse under the weight of its own greed, just like the financial industry. The corporate drive to send better-paying jobs abroad will continue, until wages here are depressed to third world levels.

    Corporations do not need the American consumer as much as they used to. CEOs go on MSNBC and talk about looking abroad for profits. The corporate-controlled tea-parties will continue and the corporate goal of privatization of all government services will slowly become acceptable. They will also advocate for lower taxes, and a broke and broken public will vote in people who will enact laws that gut taxation–for the rich alone. Already we hear constantly that the poor are lazy and undeserving, and that it is their own fault they are poor. This moral bludgeoning will increase, as will the patriotic fervor, egged on by constant conflicts meant to ensure a steady stream of oil for corporate use.

  8. yam Says:

    Pickles, jellies, jams, conserves, preserves, fruit butters, liqueurs and infused vodkas all jarred and ready for this year's holiday giving. Lots more work than shopping, but a lot more satisfying.

  9. moonbat Says:

    I basically stay out of malls most of the time, especially from now till year end. There are, to me, more preferable ways to connect with others – I'll take hanging out at a bar or a Starbucks on most days to cruising a Hall of Consumption.

    I appreciate the value of browsing, of holding an object in your hands – vs viewing it in a browser window – and I also appreciate physically strolling in front of storefronts and wandering in, and of interacting with sales people. On-line shopping gives us more control over how we wish to spend our time, and in what forms we wish to connect with others/the larger culture.

  10. soonerlawyer Says:

    Ed, I 'stumbledupon' your blog last week and so far I absolutely love your posts. I also am a dirty "liberal". I graduated from a small Christian university in Oklahoma with a degree in political science, but I went the law school route at University of Oklahoma. I'm surrounded by Conservative idiocy all day everyday in Oklahoma so its very refreshing to hear someone else unashamedly standing up for Liberal values and using profanity to mock and ridicule stupid people and their ideas. I look forward to reading all your future posts and encourage you keep it up. I know from my own blog that it takes a lot of time and effort to produce thorough posts with lots of snarky comments.

  11. jazzbumpa Says:

    Shorter Susan:

    (Grumpygrad, this is for you)

    We are SO fucked!

    Good night, and good luck,
    JzB

  12. Susan of Texas Says:

    Very true, but at least we have pie. And snark. That makes up for a lot.

  13. BillCinSD Says:

    Online shopping aids and abets the privatization of state and local governments by starving them of revenue. That is correctable but like our corporate masters will let us get in the way of their master plan

  14. Cassie Says:

    I also have to say that I can't imagine buying clothing without trying it on.

  15. jazzbumpa Says:

    Susan -

    Pie and snark are two of the things that make life worth living.

    You are a wise woman.

    Cheers!
    JzB the snarky pie-loving trombonist

  16. Larkspur Says:

    I don't go to the malls or the super-stores: I don't have the money, and even if I did, I'm not sure I'd even feel like spending it there. (Of course, I have only myself to provide for – I'm not raising kids or maintaining a family, so it's easy for me to not set foot in a WalMart.)

    And yes, I do order stuff online now and then. The thing about ordering clothing or shoes online is that the companies *know* it's a weird way to buy such items, so usually they make returns and exchanges as easy as possible. And the better sites also have information or customer reviews clarifying a particular item's fit.

    But the small local businesses – they're dying. In my county we have one independent bookstore left, along with various chain bookstore outlets. Luckily this independent bookstore is a powerhouse, well-run, supported by the community and a number of local authors. I go there and browse, or hear an author reading, and once or twice a year I'll buy a book, because of the money thing, and because I love our local library system.

    It seems like I hear all this background yammering about empowering small entrepreneurs blah blah blah. But more and more of us are going to have less and less money to spend *anywhere*, let alone locally. The great mass of us exists to consume stuff, and we're not going to be able to afford the stuff. So what use are we? What happens then? None of us wants to believe that we could be a Have-Not. We assume – still – that every day in every way we're getting better and better, that we'll all certainly be Haves, and that there's nothing stopping us from being actual Have-Mores.

    Maybe I need more pie.

  17. Mario Greymist Says:

    Shopping via the internet is not, in and of itself, socially problematic. If you observe the behavior of people shopping on the day after thanksgiving, you will note that the "social" aspect of the activity is about equal to that of the social aspect of chimps flinging poo at one another. People are nasty, aggressive and territorial (from the parking lot to the check out stand). While we certainly have primal instincts which prompt these behaviors in competitive situations (whether there are too few iPhones to go around, or too few figs off a tree) it is hardly what makes us civilized. Quite the opposite; shopping in a crowd releases our animal instincts.

    There are a thousand social activities which explore our humanity. Spend the time you would have shopping going to an art show or volunteering. Do something where the chance to form connections with other human beings has nothing to do with possessing crap you don't need.

  18. Robert Says:

    Why 'Black' Friday? Why not 'Green' Friday? Stores make money and people save money. Money money money, green green green – on a Friday. I suppose 'Black' Friday is for the unlucky few that get trampled every year. =\

  19. Marla Says:

    @Robert – in case you were actually wondering (not sure if you were just making a joke) it's "black" because that day is when many retailers first make a profit for the year, i.e., they get out of the red [ink].

    Does anyone know why loss is written in red and profit in black? Or was that just the only two ink colors available back in the olden days?

  20. Robert Says:

    Thanks Marla, I was kind of wondering and it never hurts to learn new things most of the time so good to know.

    As for your question, I think red is used cause it's associated with danger. Don't know about black. They should change it to green.

  21. Julie Says:

    There's something to be said, though, for holding a thing in your hand and knowing that when you hand over some form of currency to a human being and in turn take your item that the transaction is finished, you have your thing and it is what it purports to be. I'm not against online shopping as a whole but some things are just better bought in person.