Buyer beware: Rethinking Black Friday

Vyto Starinskas / Rutland Herald photo

(Originally published in the Rutland Herald on Nov. 30, 2011.) By now this scene is commonplace. Throngs of people convened on a predetermined location. Their motivations for being there were myriad, but all agreed they would not leave until they got what they wanted. There was shouting, pushing, shoving. In some extreme cases, people were even injured.

This wasn’t Zuccotti Park or Tahrir Square. It was retail stores across America last week rapt with Black Friday mania. As I combed my Twitter and Facebook feeds last Friday morning I was struck by the vacillation between disgust and glee in my friends’ status updates — a microcosm of American attitudes toward this pseudo-holiday.

Indeed, Black Friday is a paradox; especially, with its proximity to Thanksgiving. Both days are woven into the fabric of American tradition. One is a day set aside to give thanks and take stock of what we have. The other is an implicit admission that what we have is not yet enough — a circus of rampant materialism that reveals the worst aspects of our consumer culture. Interestingly, both are characterized by excess, overindulgence and rapacity — Thanksgiving with food, Black Friday with buying “stuff.”

If you disagree that Black Friday exposes consumerism’s dark side, just remember the fistfights in the toy aisles, the fatal stampedes and the pepper spraying. Yes, pepper spray. Last Friday in Los Angeles, a woman, apparently taking a cue from Lt. John Pike, actually shot pepper spray at a crowd of people to keep them away from merchandise she wanted, injuring 20.

Is it worth it? Is anything being sold at Walmart or Best Buy so important that it justifies such behavior? The answer, of course, is no. So why does it keep happening? Why do Americans keep letting retailers and advertisers irresponsibly whip us into a frenzy for something so utterly meaningless — something so dehumanizing?

The fact is despite the tired chorus of “buying stuff is good for the economy,” most of us can ill afford such spending. The trope that shopping on Black Friday will save you money is an illusion.

Of the $1,000 worth of merchandise you just got up at 4 a.m. to buy, how much did you actually save? How much of it did you actually need? And how much did you buy just because it was “on sale?”

To be clear, I’m not advocating that people stop buying things. That is an unreal, simplistic view. What I am saying, however, is that we should shop more responsibly.

We should turn down the noise of advertisers telling us what we need and make those decisions for ourselves.

Ultimately, these purchases do not bring us real fulfillment or pleasure. It’s fleeting. That sounds a little “Kumbaya,” I know. But before you ask if a drum circle is about to break out, think about this: How happy will that giant 3D TV make you when you’re paying it off for the next 10 months?

And what are we teaching younger generations by this unchecked consumerism? I’m not saying we shouldn’t buy our kids toys this year, but the receipt of these gifts should be tempered and excess should be avoided. We live in an increasingly disposable society where the accumulation and discarding of stuff is prized and overblown. By slowing down and buying less, we teach our kids, too, that while these things may be nice to have, they neither define us nor make us happy.

In recent years, various buy-local movements have sprung up around the country to re-frame the Black Friday phenomenon and help restore some dignity to the day. In Vermont, groups like Local First Vermont actively campaign year round to get people to buy from local and independent business.

This year, American Express (yeah, I know) was promoting Small Business Saturday — urging people to spend the day after Black Friday shopping at small businesses. The level of corporate support made this effort a little complicated, but its heart was in the right place.

A nationwide campaign to get people to support small businesses gives me hope that people are starting to get it — that the key to reviving our economy starts small and on the local level. Though, on some level, it’s sad that we have to re-educate people on how to shop.

Locally, we in Vermont are positioned better than most. We can take pride in knowing we have not had our communities gutted and replaced by the soulless suburban hell of strip malls and box stores. Our communities still have character and heart thanks, in part, to our local business owners. But they need our support.

Remember to take a deep breath as you dive into the holiday shopping mayhem this season. And when possible, consider patronizing a local business first. Remember, for every $100 spent at a local business, $45 stays in the community compared to only $15 when you shop at a chain. By now that’s a tired statistic, but it is no less true.

It’s a simple argument to say that buying local is cost-prohibitive. For some items, doing so may not fit into everyone’s budget. But if we buy less — that is, just what we need — and buy for quality over quantity, local wins out.

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