SHOPPING SPREE

11.26.14 10:45 AM ET

Walmart Lifts Black Friday’s Curse

The megachain is opting out of the crazed in-store Thanksgiving consumer rush, and we’re all the better off for it.

Thanksgiving—the day we begin our annual sacrifice of tears and treasure to “the holiday season”— heightens the intensity of life’s everyday questions like a Schedule I drug. How do I handle the traffic? How do I handle the travel? How do I handle my family? How do I handle the shopping? In a culture gone crazy, human beings lower their sights from flourishing to simple survival, only to discover there is nothing simple about it.

The alternative to “winning at Thanksgiving” is losing, and the psychological costs of failure can be so profound that intricate, quasi-military strategies for victory look wholesome by comparison. Going to Thanksgiving is like going to war; setting foot in a big-box store is like walking into World War Z. 

Believe it or not, however, all that might finally be starting to change.

True, true, Thanksgrabbing behemoths like Sears and Kmart are doubling down on doorbuster dementia. Shoppers can invade Sears two hours earlier than last year—right as the pie ought to be served, at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving eve. Kmart has extended its shopathon by 60 minutes, offering a total of 42 hours of buying and fighting that kicks off 12 hours earlier, at 6 in the morning.

“Within five years,” the humorous Tom Scharpling recently tweeted, “Target and/or Walmart will offer families an opportunity to eat Thanksgiving dinner in their store, then shop.” In a bent and classically American sense, that would actually be an improvement—one those Scandinavians, with their zen monocultural presence of mind, will probably hack for us. Can’t you already snarf down lingonberry turkey at IKEA?

There’d be an all-too-poetic justice in Thanksgiving becoming the ultimate holiday for the ultimate kind of consumer—the foodie. Only distinctions of culture and class can really differentiate sitting down for stuffing under the glare of discount fluorescents and dividing your candlelit attention between small-plate apps and iPhone apps, nibbling broccolini with one hand while binging with the other on Amazon Prime. 

But under our noses, real life is undermining the Manichean struggle in our heads between lean, mean online extravagance and fat, filthy cart-pushing. Walmart is actually defying the logic embraced so grimly by Sears, Kmart, and millions of citizen-shoppers. Rather than chumming the aisles for the mother of all feeding frenzies, Walmart is breaking up Black Friday—“trying to cater to the changing tastes of shoppers who no longer find it appealing to camp out in the middle of the night in hopes of snagging a steal,” as The Wall Street Journal reports.

Top U.S. merchant Duncan Mac Naughton explained that “people”—yes, even the uncouth and uncool—“want to shop on their own schedules,” not “set times prescribed by the retailers.” Fewer and fewer of them, says Mac Naughton, are caught roaming the store “in the middle of the night.”

We should all give thanks that Walmart, so readily and reasonably caricatured as the spawn of Satan incarnate, should use its inexorable powers to shunt critics of every stripe out of their well-worn ruts.

Our critics of consumerism rage at the fury of market dumbocracy, where the contemplative peace of the Thanksgiving spirit is trampled to death by zombies moaning for de-e-e-e-eals. Our critics of corporatism shake their fists at the poison cloud of megachain logistics, which enables superstores to supply any place with anything, crushing mom and pop in the process. For our critics of elites, grubbing for plasma TVs in sweatpants and flip flops indicates a perverse source of pride in one of the last countercultures left open to average white folk: Don’t you tell ME how to shop! And for critics of the Internet, of the nerdification of all experiences, the disruption of face-to-face commerce is slaying not only jobs but the comedies of manners that make markets bearably human.

All these criticisms take the same conceptual form: Uniformity is on the march, they complain, and the natural, decent variety of life is at risk. But instead of fighting the trend, too many of us simply capitulate—lazy, credulous fools that we are.

Our critics are united by a potent fear that the pinnacle of the American class system has partnered up with the bottom tier to make these awful changes inevitable. It’s all too true that the upper and lower classes have been brought together in a perverse political economy of greed and gratification, driven by a shared kind of nihilism that transcends inequalities of income. (How ironic and unfortunate that the critics tend to focus on one “bad” class or the other.) Yet Walmart’s rejection of Black Friday suggests Americans are finding a virtuous way, instead of a vicious one, to bridge the class divide.

We’re discovering the limits of commercial activity that disrupts family communion, multiplies our appetites, and extends our hours of toil, not just our moments of bargain extravagance. And Walmart is helping us do it. After all, if a retail Leviathan like that can find the good grace to de-escalate the holiday Hunger Games, why can’t you and I, whatever our class or culture?

Of course, neither we nor Walmart nor anyone else should be left off the hook for the rest of the year for good behavior during one brief vacation. But let’s go step by step. There’s no better time than Thanksgiving to rediscover the secret of flourishing—that plenty is disgusting without variety.

Once we do, we’ll have our effete online shoppers, and our burly wranglers of oversize shopping pallets too. We’ll splurge on some occasions and refrain on others. Freed from the fear that America’s worst have seized the initiative and won’t let go, we can start to relax into gratitude for longer than a four-day weekend.

We’d better hurry, too. Gotta stock up on sanity before Christmas.