Why don’t stores have white sales on Black Friday?

Black Friday is coming and the advertising message is one of urgency, that if we don't act fast and spend money the world will be devoid of clothing, office supplies and electronics by Saturday.

DOTHAN, AL, November 20, 2012 — If you have any contact at all to the outside world you’ve probably gotten the message by now that Black Friday is coming. The general message of the ads on TV, radio and the internet is one of urgency. They suggest that  you need to act fast and spend money because the world will be devoid of clothing, office supplies and electronics by the next day, which of course would mean an end to life as we know it in America.

According to all the political pundits, the recent election is an indication that life as we know it has already ended, so what’s the big deal?

The term Black Friday dates to a post-civil war financial scandal under President Ulysses S. Grant. Similar to the way bankers and investors still behave today, Jay Gould and James Fisk attempted to corner the gold market on the US Gold Exchange. If you dislike reading about history, you can get a general idea of how such plans work from a 1983 movie, Trading Places, in which the “Kane brothers” (were they alluding to the Koch brothers?) try to corner the commodities market for orange juice futures .

The Gould-Fisk scam ended badly for a lot of people and the term Black Friday survived to be used again and again for various disasters and unfortunate events, including a 1910 incident in England where police assaulted several hundred suffragettes at a protest. Other Black Friday events included the great stock market crash of 1929 and the massacre of protesters at an Iranian demonstration in 1978.

Considering that all these tragic events involved loss of life and money, it’s easy to understand why retailers made the connection to their biggest, most crowded shopping day of the year.

The first use the term Black Friday by retail stores was in Philadelphia in the early 1960’s. Stores supposedly borrowed the expression from police, who used it to refer to heavy traffic on the day after Thanksgiving, and it spread from there as a trade term to suggest that stores were profitable, or “in the black.”

A new term has just been coined, Gray Thursday, for stores like Walmart opening after 8 PM on Thanksgiving to beat competitors that are opening at various times after midnight. Unionized Walmart employees are planning protests at some stores on Friday and store officials are filing legal complaints to block them. God rest ye merry gentlemen.

I’m also getting bombarded by “shop local” ads that warn of dire consequences if the small, family-owned retailers in our towns go out of business. I support the idea of shop local and I would like to comply, but I live in a rural farm area so that pretty much restricts me to Zeke’s Feed & Grain, The Rod & Gun Emporium  or Thompson’s Hardware.

I shopped local last year, but the fishing pole and the electric drill I got for my young granddaughter is still sitting unused in her closet. The other side of the equation is that if Super Walmart leaves the area due to lack of sales, we would be left with very little to do for amusement on Saturday nights.

According to the National Retail Federation, roughly half of all retailers will continue to run print ads throughout the holiday season, about a third will run TV ads, and virtually every retailer in America has contracted with the forces of darkness to provide a steady stream of electronic ads via social media, email and mobile media.

People pay $100 a month for cellular service and get ads? Seriously? I thought our society hit a new low when ticket prices for movies hit $16.00 and theaters started showing an hour of product commercials before the show. I am pleased to report, however, that they still use the same toxic sludge that gives their popcorn that special “at the movies” flavor.

The newest innovation for retailers this year is a hot fad from the pre-credit 1950’s called layaway, a plan that lets you reserve an item in July and make installment payments until Christmas, or until you are broke, whichever comes first. It’s a good plan in theory, but it can be a little tricky explaining to the kids why their toys are still at the store on Christmas morning if you blow the payment schedule for any reason like losing a job.

Another problem with layaway plans is that by the time you’ve finished paying, the kids have outgrown the clothing sizes, electronics are obsolete and hot toys are no longer hot. Ask any kid and they will tell you that a toy is not worth having once the TV ads stop running.

Despite the potential for dents in cars, bruises from pushing and shoving, and bites on arms from other angry shoppers, 147 million consumers still plan to go out shopping some time during this holiday weekend and will spend about $400 each. An equal number of consumers will shop online instead, assuming that servers and data lines don’t overload and freeze up.

Retail sales last year, just for the 4-day Thanksgiving weekend alone, totaled over $52 billion, up significantly from $45 billion in 2010 and $41 billion in 2009. ‘Tis the season to be jolly.

If you are wondering about the reference to biting, I heard about that from a wonderful Best Buy customer service representative named Jennie who helped me with some pre-Black Friday business on the phone recently. She told me that last year, while waiting to purchase a toy at a major discount store, a middle-aged man walked up tried to take it away from her by biting her on the arm. I hope Santa saw that and left the man a stocking full of reindeer droppings.

Almost every major website is now offering advice on how to navigate the retail landscape and survive Black Friday sales events. One site gives over two dozen detailed instructions that make shopping sound like a special operations mission — pre-planning and timing are critical, store layouts should be mapped, products must be pre-selected and the team needs an alternate pick up location in case of traffic.

They don’t mention it, but if you find yourself under attack by foreign nationals do not call the State Department after 5:00 PM.

I have simplified all of that into just one suggestion: stay home. Despite the retail feeding frenzy on Black Friday there will still be 29 shopping days left, and the real spirit of Christmas comes from waiting until the very last day. Of course that’s easy for me to say since Thompson’s Hardware stays open late on Christmas Eve.

(Get the backstory, plus author notes and more at Rick’s blog site:www.ricktownley.com.)


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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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