For many businesses this year, Black Friday could have been renamed Black-and-Blue Friday. What is often the busiest shopping day of the year was marked by the absence of shoppers. News reporters hoping to catch the excitement of the holiday crush faced empty parking lots and few people to interview. What shoppers they did find commented on the lack of other shoppers and stores filled with stock except for empty shelves where the advertised specials had been. The excitement of the season’s premier shopping experience was missing as much by design as by accident.
This year, some of the major retailers advertised they would offer Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day. Not to be outdone, other retailers rushed to do the same. Many opened their doors at eight p.m. and some opened as early as five. Black Friday regulars responded by scheduling their Thanksgiving dinners early enough to stand on the long lines hoping to catch the early-bird specials. Others abandoned Thanksgiving altogether and camped out in store parking lots to get to the head of the lines. The major news networks documented the shift. It looked as though retailers had actually managed to move their mega-shopping Black Friday experience into the Thanksgiving holiday itself. Then the other shoe dropped. What was supposed to be the best holiday buying season in years has turned out to be lackluster at best and dismal at worst. So what happened? Here’s what I think.
Most of us remember from our youth Aesop’s fable of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs. In short, a cottager and his wife had a goose that laid golden eggs. They supposed that the goose had a great lump of gold inside so they killed it in an effort to attain the riches all at once, only to find that its innards were no different than any other. The moral of the fable is that unprofitable actions motivated by greed can deprive us of gains earned day by day. I believe something similar occurred on Black Friday.
I know many people for whom Black Friday was a sort of holiday itself. After a day of eating and merriment with family and friends on Thanksgiving, these hardy shoppers looked forward to this annual outing. Parents, children, friends, and neighbors, would gather for what was as much a social event as an opportunity to save money on holiday shopping. They circled the door-busters in fliers, listed the store opening times, and carefully mapped out the best routes to catch the greatest number of specials. But once the special were exhausted, something unique happened. Our relentless gatherers did not immediately return home. Instead, they stopped at a local restaurant to refuel and once satisfied, ventured out again to continue their shopping and socializing at a slower, calmer pace. It was the holiday after the holiday. That changed this year.
The retailers failed to realize this important social aspect of the Black Friday shopping experience. Even when stores moved their opening times to midnight on Thanksgiving, it was still, for the most part, a separate experience. There was ample time to eat leisurely, to socialize with guests or hosts, to clean-up, and to rest before venturing out. With the shopping day melded into the holiday itself, there was no downtime. Exhausted after the Thanksgiving festivities, shoppers were manipulated into forgoing their rest at the risk of loosing some of the best prices of the year and having to pay more later, or not get that special item at all because the limited stocks were depleted. Shoppers pushed themselves out of their homes and onto the store lines, but with a different agenda. This was not a time for socializing and leisure holiday shopping. It was a time to get the bargains and get back home to bed. Shoppers emptied the shelves of the door-buster specials and left the rest of the stores and their stock in place, fundamentally changing the nature of the entire experience. Much of the excitement of holiday shopping was also lost in the process, and that lack of excitement seems to be spreading into the remainder of the holiday season. Retailers faced with bloated inventories and the prospects of a dismal forth quarter have begun offering deep discounts in an effort to exhaust their excess inventories before the New Year. In effect, they have killed the goose that laid the golden egg.
I will not be dismayed this new experiment on the part of retailers turns out to be a catastrophic failure for this year: but not because I wish ill for the retailers. On the contrary, I wish them prosperity and steady growth. When they succeed, we all do. My hope is that the failure of this particular effort will result in most stores remaining closed during the Thanksgiving holiday in the future. Thanksgiving is an opportunity for rest in what is otherwise a relentlessly frenetic society. It is a time to count our blessings, to give thanks, and to make personal contact with those we love and care for. It is also a uniquely American holiday. On this day, we pause to consider the many sacrifices so many have made to give us the freedoms and privileges we enjoy. To give all that up for a few extra hours of shopping strikes me as shortsighted and perhaps ungrateful.
For me, the events of this year have given me pause to think a bit and consider the blessings in my own life. In particular, I am thankful for the people who have blessed me with their presence rather then presents. I also give thanks the opportunities this country has given me to pursue so many avenues of self-fulfillment, including the freedom to express myself without fear of repression or repercussion. And I thank God, Who has blessed me and so many of us in this country with an abundance of so many good things. I pray that this year will present you with many reasons to be thankful and I extend my warmest wishes to you and yours for a blessed Christmas (or whatever holiday expression is consistent with your own faith) and a wonderful New Year.