Posts Tagged ‘Holidays’

Black Friday has over the past decades become the default kickoff of annual consumer madness associated with the holiday season and its gift-giving tradition. Due to the pandemic, this year has been considerably muted in comparison to other years — at least in terms of crowds. Shopping has apparently moved online fairly aggressively, which is an entirely understandable result of everyone being locked down and socially distanced. (Lack of disposable income ought to be a factor, too, but American consumers have shown remarkable willingness to take on substantial debt when able in support of mere lifestyle.) Nevertheless, my inbox has been deluged over the past week with incessant Black Friday and Cyber Monday advertising. Predictably, retailers continue feeding the frenzy.

Uncharacteristically, perhaps, this state of affairs is not the source of outrage on my part. I recognize that we live in a consumerist, capitalist society that will persist in buying and selling activities even in the face of increasing hardship. I’m also cynical enough to expect retailers (and the manufacturers they support, even if those manufacturers are Chinese) to stoke consumer desire through advertising, promotions, and discount sales. It’s simply what they do. Why stop now? Thus far, I’ve seen no rationalizations or other arguments excusing how it’s a little ghoulish to be profiting while so many are clearly suffering and facing individual and household fiscal cliffs. Instead, we rather blandly accept that the public needs to be served no less by mass market retailers than by, say, grocery and utility services. Failure by the private sector to maintain functioning supply lines (including nonessentials, I suppose) during a crisis would look too much like the appalling mismanagement of the same crisis by local, state, and federal governments. Is it ironic that centralized bureaucracies reveal themselves as incompetent at the very same time they consolidate power? Or more cynically, isn’t it outrageous that they barely even try anymore to address the true needs of the public?

One of the questions I’ve posed unrhetorically is this: when will it finally become undeniably clear that instead of being geared to growth we should instead be managing contraction? I don’t know the precise timing, but the issue will be forced on us sooner or later as a result of radically diminishing return (compared to a century ago, say) on investment (ROI) in the energy sector. In short, we will be pulled back down to earth from the perilous heights we scaled as resources needed to keep industrial civilization creaking along become ever more difficult to obtain. (Maybe we’ll have to start using the term unobtainium from the Avatar movies.) Physical resources are impossible to counterfeit at scale, unlike the bogus enormous increase in the fiat money supply via debt creation. If/when hyperinflation makes us all multimillionaires because everything is grossly overvalued, the absurd paradox of being cash rich yet resource poor ought to wake up some folks.

Holiday creep is observable in at least two aspects: (1) those who can (i.e., those with enviable employment benefits) use additional time off on adjacent workdays to create 4-, 5-, or 6-day holiday spans, and (2) businesses that sell to the public mount incessant sales campaigns that demand everyone’s attention and participation as good American consumers. Since I’m a Bah! Humbug! sorta fellow, these expansive regions of the calendar take on the characteristics of a black hole, sucking everything into their gravity wells and crushing the life out of any honest sentiment left to cynics and curmudgeons like me. We’re in the midst of one such holiday span, and my inclination (beyond appreciating the time off from work) is to hide away from bustle and obligation. Nonetheless, I show up and participate in some small measure.

Here in Chicago, trains and buses going to the Loop (the downtown business district) are less heavily trafficked at rush hours for several days before the actual holiday. However, I suspect the Blue Line to O’Hare and the Orange Line to Midway are both quite busy with travelers on the move. This is traditionally the holiday when people visit family for feasting and afternoon naps (or football games, I’m told). I’ve braved air travel at this time only a couple times, which is more miserable than usual due to congestion and weather-related delays. My workplace was a ghost town not only on the eve of the holiday for days in advance. Is it only my memory is that the eves of Christmas and New Year’s Day used to be the only ones that were celebrated? Now many expect to be released early from work prior to any observed holiday. Again, this is a benefit not evenly shared across the population and one I do not take for granted.

Feeding and shopping frenzies associated with holidays are well established traditions. However, subtle shifts to the shopping side are occurring that signal either welcome change or dying tradition, depending on one’s perspective. For instance, in the past few years, it’s been customary to learn of shoppers cued outside various superstores who stampede, trample, and fight like barbarians once doors are flung open. That ugly prospect is apparently disappearing, at least according to this report, as shoppers move away from brick-and-mortar venues to online shopping. Still, one acquaintance of mine relished the chance to among those multitudes and joked about trampling others to score a great deal on a comforter.

Similarly, some recognize the ecological impact of overconsumption (related to overpopulation) and have called for a ban to Black Friday sales, and presumably, other perverse incentives. This second development fits my thinking as I’ve blogged repeatedly how we’re awash in refuse and debris from our own past consumption. Still, my e-mail inbox has been positively pummeled by those few retailers in possession of my address who preview their Black Friday sales for weeks beforehand then offer forgiveness and second chances afterwards. The stink of desperation is on them, as business news organs report that holiday sales account for an impressively large percentage of annual sales but are threatened by fewer shopping days between the two anchor holidays this year (Thanksgiving falls late in the month). While that may have its effect, I daresay the larger problem is income inequality and the absence of positive bank balances among an ever-growing segment of the population. Debit balances on credit cards have already fueled about as much overconsumption as most can stomach.

Does it truly feel like the “most wonderful time of the year” on reflection and honest assessment? There is still enjoyment to be had, certainly. But unless one is an innocent child protected from the harshness of reality or otherwise living under a rock, every holiday decoration is tinged with knowledge of excess and suspicion that this year may finally be the last one we enjoy fully before things spin out of control. For a couple others of my holiday-themed blog entries (less dour perhaps than this one), see this and this.

Color-Coded Holidays

Posted: June 16, 2019 in Culture
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Considering the over-seriousness of most of my blog posts, here’s something lighter from the archives of my dead group blog.

Creative Destruction

Today’s holiday (Valentine’s Day) got me thinking about how the various major holidays scattered over the calendar are associated with specific colors and behaviors. The granddaddy of ’em all, Christmas, is the Red Holiday, which is associated with spending yourself into debt to get gifts for everyone and drinking rum-spiced eggnog. (The birth of Christ is an afterthought for most of us by now.) Valentine’s Day is the Pink Holiday and is for spending money on one’s sweetheart to demonstrate the level of one’s appreciation/sacrifice. Sorry, no drinking. Easter is the Yellow Holiday, probably pastel, and is for chasing colored eggs and purchasing baskets of goodies. Oh, and the risen saviour. Again, sorry, no drinking (unless you count sacramental wine.) The Green Holiday is St. Patrick’s Day, and is for drinking. Some wear some bit of green clothing, but it’s mostly about the drinking.

The Blue Holiday is…

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The Calculus of Christmas

Posted: December 18, 2013 in Consumerism, Culture, Economics, Tacky
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Here is something I’ve never done before: go into my blog archive and bring something forward. The original post went up in Dec. 2006 and since then received fewer than 30 direct views. (The number of passive views when it was visible on the homepage is unrecorded.) I’ve kept the primary link but updated the second one. Otherwise, the blog has not been rewritten. The original has been deleted.

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Feeding the Frenzy

Posted: November 29, 2008 in Consumerism, Culture, Media, Tacky
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News reports from all over North American tell of Black Friday crowds stampeding through the doors at the start of business. Abusive behavior, crime, injuries, and even one death are the results. G’head: Google it. People who get through the throngs unscathed probably find it exhilarating and wouldn’t miss it for the world. Retailers are feeding the frenzy by encouraging shoppers to race for sale items, often located at the back of the store. Here’s a typical image of what occurs:

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Maybe it’s a sort of chicken-and-egg question. Which came first: stores engineering predictable disasters at peak times in crowded entryways or commodity-hungry shoppers willing to risk personal injury by running the opening gate gauntlet. Another way to put the question is who’s more to blame? It’s probably a fool’s errand to answer that, but from a practical point of view, it’s a lot easier to control the sale environment than the behavior of mobs.

Videos on the web show shoppers streaming through the doors hooting and cheering and having fun. No one plans to fall or trample someone else who’s fallen, but it’s an entirely predictable result of the way doors are thrown open at 4 AM or some ungodly hour to get a head start on seasonal gift buying. Sometimes the spark that ignites the crowd is an announcement in the parking lot that only so many of item X are on hand, at which point the crowd surges. These are not desperate people trying to get fed in a bread line. Rather, they’re seeking to save something like $30 on a sale item, and for that, they’ll race, fight, and sometimes hold up fellow shoppers at gunpoint to get item X.

This problem has been building for some years. The starting time of Black Friday events has been creeping earlier and earlier, creating a false sense of lost opportunity. Similarly, the scarcity of must-have gifts, whether Tickle Me Elmo or Xbox, has caused shoppers to scramble. Retailers are also dangling carrots before the crowds and then are pretending to be inexplicably aghast at the mob savagery that results. Are store managers not paying attention? If a mob gathers for a sale event and there are no contingency plans for crowd control, a reasonable response might be to cancel the sale and send everyone home. Or maybe the sale shouldn’t be set to occur on a notoriously high-traffic shopping day where a maximum of 35 units are guaranteed to disappoint 300 shoppers, who then proceed to struggle with each other for access to booty. Or maybe the media (including retailers with their advertisements) shouldn’t whip people into a frenzy with promises of ecstatic fulfillment at obtaining their heart’s desire but with the foreknowledge that they’ll have to contend with the crowds to do so.

The whole business is obscene. Crowds behave like piranha gutting their prey, and retailers are basically throwing chum into the water. I didn’t venture out on Black Friday at all. Is any consumer item so important that it can’t wait a few days until the crowds disperse a bit?