Friday, November 30, 2012

Phrase of the Day: SENDING A MESSAGE

Just last week, in certain department stores across America, the latest trend in Christmas season shopping insanity continued...and got even worse.  The Friday after Thanksgiving Day is known as Black Friday.  It is called such because that is the one day in which retailers are supposed to begin turning a profit for the year (being "in the black") after spending the year running at basically a deficit (being "in the red").  The term came about sometime in the early 1960s and gained wider usage in the following decade.

However, for the past several years, the black connotation given to that day has also come to mean something different: black, as in a black mark on society as a whole.  In addition to this blog entry's title, Sending a Message, some other words are key here -- greed, behavior, family, and necessity.

One of the basic precepts of going into business in the first place is to, hopefully, make a profit.  Even if your main thrust is to provide a service or certain products, you certainly don't intend to lose money.  That is how it should be, so keep in mind that I personally have no problem with any business turning a profit.  It seems to me, however, that the earlier and earlier start times for doors to open to shoppers is, in one sense, about greed.  Why stop at turning profits with closing on Thanksgiving Day and then opening up on Black Friday, when you can push the envelope further and further.  The longer you're open, the likelihood of greater profits.  

I can remember Black Fridays past from my childhood.  My mother and I would always go to the old Audubon Shopping Center -- a kind of really neat semi-outdoor mall -- and wait for Santa Claus to arrive.  He did, via helicopter, and he made his way through the throng of excited children (including me!) there to see him.  Then we'd go to one of the department stores that had a special area set up and we'd wait in line to see Santa, just as children and their parents do nowadays mostly in malls.  It never took place on Thanksgiving Day, always on Black Friday.  As I grew up -- and I'm counting from my teens now -- I neither felt, nor did I ever hear anyone else say, that being able to shop on Thanksgiving Day would be a great idea.  Thanksgiving Day was a least for most of us...and going shopping (except for something last minute at the food store) was the last thing on anyone's mind.  Period.

When the malls began to open on Black Friday an hour or two earlier than their usual weekday opening time, it seemed not too terribly big of a deal.  Around here, the 10:00 a.m. opening at the malls would be 8:00 a.m., maybe 9:00.  Then, a slight push up in the time kept happening.  When 7:00 a.m. was the opening time, my family and many of my friends thought that it was ridiculous.  However, the shoppers came.  When the opening time was 6:00 a.m., our collective "That's ridiculous" exhortation echoed again.  Again, the shoppers came.  It seemed like each year, or every two years, the opening time was a little earlier and a little earlier.  5:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. opening times bordered on the absurd.  Undeterred, the shoppers still came.  Lining up late at night or even camping out became more and more commonplace.

For a couple of years, there were no changes, but the next leap was on the horizon...and it was a big leap.  Last year, an opening time of midnight on Thanksgiving night was announced by several retailers.  The greed was multiplying.  It was disappointing, but the shoppers didn't disappoint retailers.  They came...and they came in droves. The insanity would not end there.

This year, for the first time ever, many of those same retailers (i.e. Wal-Mart, Sears, Toys R Us) opened up on Thanksgiving evening.  Some stores opened at 10:00 p.m.; some opened at 9:00 p.m.  Others opened at 8:00 p.m.  That's right, 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving night.  The words "ridiculous" and "absurd" now seem woefully inadequate.  And, you guessed it, the shoppers stood in line and camped out so that they could storm the stores just like starving animals hunting prey...not like savvy consumers, but like starving animals. 

Why would I use such strong language?  Did I go shopping on a Black Friday and have a really bad experience?  No, I did not.  In fact, whenever I did go to a mall on a Black Friday -- which was extremely rare (rarer than rare, in fact) -- it was to pick up a couple Christmas cards and maybe some gift wrap.  Not only that, but I usually went sometime around 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., when most shoppers would be at the food court getting dinner.  The bulk of my Black Friday experience was watching the annual news reports of shoppers packing malls.  That whole fighting crowds scene, even before this Black Friday/Thanksgiving madness ever started, never seemed worth it to me.  That kind of behavior was, quite frankly, repulsive to me. 

That behavior has gotten worse each year.  Here are some examples from just this year alone.

In the rush of all this hullabaloo, the family has taken a real hit.  It's not just for those employees who have to work (employers telling you when you can have Thanksgiving with your family), but it's also for consumers (letting shopping dictate how you'll structure your holiday).  Looks like the score is Retailers 1, Families 0, with no change in sight.

Tacked on to all of this, and no less important, is the concept of necessity.  I gotta have this...I gotta have that...little Johnny's gotta have this...little Jane's gotta have that, and so on.  Gotta have?  Wow!  Really?  If pressed, many of these same folks would say that, of course, life would go on if they didn't buy this or that,  (Maybe they'd soften their language by saying they "really want it".)  "Want" would be more appropriate, but "gotta have" seems to be the prevalent nomenclature.  We have been told what is necessity -- come buy it from our stock -- and too many of us have bought that message.  The fundamental five -- air, water, food, shelter, clothing -- are necessities.  Period.  Anything else beyond that is superfluous.

We have given up our power as consumers -- yes, there is such a thing beyond raising a stink or filing a lawsuit -- in order to make stores our new recreational rooms, and to make cashiers and salespersons our new extended families.  Perhaps you know the famous line from the film 'Field of Dreams': "If you build it, they will come."  Maybe you know the line that became famous in the 1960s: "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?"  (There was a 1970 film of the same name, and the phrase was a line in The Monkees' song 'Zor and Zam'.)  Well, if you don't show up, the retailers will change.  Retailers follow consumer's patterns, but many act as though consumers must follow retailers' patterns.  So, if you don't show up, aside from apparently feeling less of a person for not going, do you really think that a year or two of consumers not showing up on Thanksgiving night wouldn't force retailers to go back to being closed on Thanksgiving Day and open on Black Friday?  If you don't think so, then they own you, plain and simple.

As far as I'm concerned, a necessity for this time of year is a paradigm shift.  Fast!

For the record, I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with people buying gifts for loved ones, none at all.  My point is regarding how that has been tainted.  All of this is easy to blame on the retailers alone.  True, greed is a powerful motivator and that falls clearly on their collective shoulders, but there is another and equal part in all of this madness...consumers.  Keep showing up earlier and earlier when they are open earlier and earlier and watch what happens next year or the following.  If we didn't show up, they wouldn't open.  It is that simple! We are, and have been, sending a strong message: We are owned...we liked to be owned...we like to behave like wild animals...and we only value families as justifications for all of the above.

Somehow, I never thought that was supposed to be the message of this time of year.


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