Black Friday, Zombie Holiday
If shopping is a sport, then Black Friday is the Super Bowl. Mike Albo argues that the yearly hysteria over Bionicles and Barbies reflects a dark vision of how we buy.
The glowing Rudolphs and inflatable menorahs have been foisted up over neighborhood supermarkets and gas stations; the jingly seasonal soundtracks are dribbling out of hidden speakers in shopping centers; and for sure you’ve seen that way-too-energetic Gap ad: “Go Christmas! Go Hanukah! Go Kwanzaa! Go Solstice!”
Ugh, go away. But no, here it comes. Black Friday: bigger, weirder, and seemingly more vital to our economy than ever before.
After Thursday’s gorgefest, Black Friday goes off like a starting gun and we rush around buying candles, Kindles, Bionicles and Barbie Twilight dolls. Inevitably, someone gets hurt. Or worse. Last year, Jdimytai Damour, a temporary worker at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York, was trampled to death by shoppers who burst through the doors before the store's 5 a.m. opening. He was 6’4” and had been at the job about a week.
“It is impossible to keep things on the shelf,” says one apparel employee. “I was constantly just pulling stuff out of drawers and before it goes on shelf, people would pull it out of my hand.”
Still, stores are amping up. Tanger Outlet Centers are arranging a Midnight Madness Sale starting at 12 a.m., Old Navy plans to open its doors at 3 a.m., and J.C. Penney Co. is offering free wakeup calls for shoppers, as well as a hundred sale items, including 50-60 percent off women’s “cold weather wraps and accessories” and 50 percent off Remington razors. Shaving accessories: The gift that keeps on giving.
“I’m up when the doors open, just to people watch,” says a commenter on the Tennesean.com. “It’s just the fun of watching everybody fight over the item they only have five of. It’s usually a family affair—last year we were at Opry Mills in our pajamas.”
“It’s a fun day to spend with my family. A tradition that we have been doing for years and years now,” says a commenter on the “I Love Black Friday!!!” forum. “I can’t imagine really kick-starting the holiday season without it!! Does anyone else agree with me??”
Apparently yes. According to a survey conducted for the National Retail Federation, 134 million people are eager to get their hands on sale items this year, and 10.3 percent of shoppers plan on getting to stores between midnight and 3 a.m. for the best deals.
• Lee Eisenberg: 6 Secrets of Perfect Gift Giving• Lee Eisenberg: 7 Signs You’re a ShopaholicThe phrase “Black Friday” has complicated origins. Coined to describe the Fisk/Gould scandal and financial panic of 1869, its modern meaning wasn’t used until the mid-1960s. Last year, Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina with an interest in linguistics and folklore, found the earliest usage of Black Friday (as we know it) in an advertisement placed in the January 1966 edition of the American Philatelist.
The ad is an optimistic letter to readers from Martin Apfelbaum, the executive VP of a stamp collecting shop on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Apfelbaum gleefully lists the number of sales his store enjoyed the day after Thanksgiving (100 bid sheets in the mail, 15 collections coming to appraisal, over 100 customers). In an era before suburbs with their shopping centers, when thousands of Don and Betty Drapers flocked into Philly on the Friday after Thanksgiving to shop, Apfelbaum mentions that the police refer to the day as “Black Friday.”
“It is not a term of endearment to them,” says Apfelbaum in his letter. “‘Black Friday’ officially opens the Christmas shopping season in Center City, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and overcrowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing. All in all, ‘Black Friday’ certainly lived up to its reputation.”
But like any good businessman, Apfelbaum knew how give Black Friday a positive spin: “Is this activity unusual? A little. But just stop in on any day of the week and you will see more action at Apfelbaum's than at any stamp shop in the world.”
Since then, most people— including the National Retail Federation—give the day an Apfelbaumian angle, describing Black Friday as the time that retailers go from “red” and in debt to being profitable and in the black for the year. A magic housecleaning as if Mary Poppins were an accountant.
Taylor-Blake, who printed her finding in a listserv on the Web site of American Dialect Society, tends to think that this is window-dressing. The “black ink” explanation, she and other researchers propose, was an attempt to revise the negative nickname—rendering a pejorative phrase used by exhausted cops and salesclerks into an encouraging slogan that birthed shopping culture, crowds desperate for a markdown, and the Kardashians.
“It’s really gotten hold of the public imagination,” says Kalle Lasn, the editor in chief of Adbusters magazine, and author of the book Culturejam. “It’s almost got patriotic implications…to set up the fantastic holiday season to keep the economy humming.”
Since the '60s, Black Friday has mutated into its current gargantuan state of tantalizing sales and “doorbuster” deals. “I remember in ‘89 it wasn’t that much of a promotional day for us,” says a seasoned CEO who has been working in the retail industry for 20 years. “But somehow after 20 years it’s become this insanity of promotion. First it was friends and family, then employees, then show up between 8 and 10 you get a discount.”
Now it’s become a mad rush. Recalling last year’s Black Friday, a manager at a major women’s apparel outlet describes how sales earnings were blasted through his headset.
“It was like a radio station of the days earnings—‘We are at 200,000. Now we need another 100,000 to make our quota’—all of this is just heard by stock people and managers in the basement, behind the scenes. It was really loud, and felt so overbearing and scary. The pressure is overwhelming to sell.”
“It is impossible to keep things on the shelf,” says another apparel employee. “I was constantly just pulling stuff out of drawers and before it goes on shelf, people would pull it out of my hand. They also were transferring so much stuff in—we didn't even know what we had.”
A professional who works at a major retail chain, also speaking anonymously (no one wants to risk losing their jobs these days), criticized that the frenzied sales created by some stores are outright manipulation. “They call it planned promotions. If you say something is on sale, legally it has to be on the floor at its regular price for a period of time. If something is listed regularly at $100 and is now $39, they never intended to sell it at $100. It’s a ballet of what goes on sale when you have all this inventory.”
Creating anticipation, must-have markdowns and last-minute deals to drive up sales figures— seems like another side of our chaotic economy of surges, panics, subprime loans, and stimulus packages. It’s also creepily similar to the movie Wall-E.
Black Friday has become a kind of Groundhog Day for the economy. The supersized sales event is used as a barometer to measure our collective econo-consiousness, the consumer hive-brain that, as we now know, is capable of destructive tantrums and meltdowns. After this weekend, we will nervously wait for the news reports that tell us what happened, how much we spent, how we “did” as consumers on our national spending spree: We are in a recession. Or coming out of one. Or headed for more of one.
As a counterpoint, Lasn created Buy Nothing Day with other consumer activists to address overconsumption and its ecological ramifications. Now in its 18th year, the anti-stuff movement encourages people to refrain from purchasing anything on Black Friday.
“People take it very seriously. You never really get to explore this impulse to buy… people have found how life-changing it is to not be, for a day at least, a drone to the consumer culture.”
Even the retail industry itself is trying to find ways to temper the frenzy. The NRF has released crowd-management guidelines, and, according to an article in The New York Times, retailers are taking measures to make the day more orderly and safe: Wal-Mart shoppers, for example, will be steered into lines for desired items instead of having to run and grab the “doorbuster” merchandise, inciting a crowd craze.
Although they never directly mention it, these measures have clearly been released in reaction to last year’s tragic Black Friday. A sense of caution and concern is certainly better than nothing, but it doesn’t quite lead to warm and fuzzy holiday images. Financially insecure citizens, waiting for their goods in organized lines guarded by security: a social experiment, with mistletoe.
Mike Albo is a writer and performer who lives and loves in Brooklyn. His second novel, (written with Virginia Heffernan) is the cult humor classic, The Underminer: The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life. You can find him at mikealbo.com.