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The Black Friday Hoax

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This is the time of the year when American consumers become focused like a laser on finding deals from retailers. There is some compulsion to buy more stuff as the holidays approach — as gifts for friends and family, in the spirit of Christmas and Hanukkah, and as gifts for ourselves. After all, with the supposed great discounts, everyone deserves a little material satisfaction.

Over the last few years, a big industry has developed around Black Friday. Companies are dedicated to aggregating Black Friday ads, helping consumers find the lowest prices for their favorite doodads and trinkets. Websites spring into action in the months leading up to the holidays, offering price alerts via email and text message to those willing to sign up. Smartphone apps count down the days until the day after Thanksgiving and give those with iPhones an idea of where they can buy their next iPhone at the best price.

Overall, the idea of Black Friday is a hoax, but it’s a good hoax. Shoppers — those who survive the trampling in the stores and buy what they want while supplies last — feel good about getting a deal. It’s a psychological advantage. The thrill of the hunt might be a human instinct left in our genetic code hundreds of generations after hunting for survival was an everyday part of life. With the progression of the internet and social media, finding good deals has been gamified, with those who participate with urgency being rewarded as deal winners. It’s the further acceleration of the materialistic mindset going back at least as far as the retail industry has existed.

Feeling good about finding a deal, however, requires willful ignorance of the true nature of capitalism. Deal finders believe they are beating the system. For example, I recently purchased a new digital SLR camera. I followed a website known letting its readers know about the lowest prices on the latest equipment, and I jumped on the chance to buy this latest piece of technology several hundred dollars less than the street price. I read experts’ expectations about future prices for the camera, based on past pricing patterns. I accepted that this was probable the best price I might be able to get for at least six months, and this was a piece of equipment I wanted, so I pulled the trigger before the deal disappeared.

I might have paid less for the same camera than many other customers paid around the same time, thanks to the attention I paid to the prices, but I didn’t beat the system. Overall, the company I purchased the item from knew that lowering the price to that point would draw in more sales, making up for the lost per-item profit with volume profit. My purchase played right into the retailer’s plan.

Does that matter, as long as I’m getting a good deal? Many people would say no. But it does matter if I think in any way that finding deals makes me a superior shopper. The system is designed with deals in mind. The only way to beat this system and save money in the long term is to separate yourself from the materialistic experience as much as possible, especially around the holidays. Deals, and the positive feelings associated with scoring a great price, just make people shop and spend more overall. The only real way to “win” Black Friday is to refrain from playing.

If society stopped paying attention to deals and avoided shopping, the economy, based so much on retail performance, would slow to a halt. So there are shoppers who justify excessive spending with the idea that they’re helping the economy. You don’t have to be an economic martyr, however. Sacrificing the stability of your bank account for the sake of the nation is not honorable, because the nation will do you no such favors in return.

Although here and there, there are some people who are willing to put down their wallets for the holidays, it’s not realistic to ask people to stop buying presents for each other. It’s a custom entrenched in society’s shared consciousness. And there’s no reason to expect people should even consider spending less. Many people are in a financial position where a reasonable gift-giving season will not significantly damage their long term prospects for achieving financial independence. Some people could greatly benefit from curbed spending, however, when it requires a sacrifice of savings or something more important than having the latest gadgets, like a retirement above poverty level or like education.

Spiritually, there may be something that can be gained from a shift of focus from consumerism towards family or some other outlet. That’s for each individual to decide. The idea, however, that holidays have “lost their true meaning” as a result of excess consumerism is a mistake. Some who rally against the materialism of modern Christmas, for example, often argue that Christmas should be about spending time with family and spreading love; other rally against both approaches and believe Christmas should be about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

Most seem to ignore the fact that the holiday had roots before Christianity itself, when festivals coincided with the change of seasons and astronomical observances like the change in the length of days, and had no purpose other than to mark those times with celebrations. The method of celebration in those pre-Christian times would probably not look so different than how we celebrate today, with the holidays invading many aspects of our everyday lives, with increased anticipation each year beginning months prior. I’ve seen friends observing that the holiday-themed marketing began much earlier than usual this year — but this is the same observation I’ve heard every year for as long as I’ve been aware of people’s need to observe and comment on society’s approach to holidays.

There are many options for those who wish to curb spending during the holiday season, particularly during the hyped Black Friday madness. Avoid it completely, if you like. If it makes you feel better, buy nothing on Black Friday, though that will just move your shopping to another day and force you to possibly pay more than you would have for the same items. Offset your spending with Giving Tuesday, a non-profit movement to increase charitable giving during the holiday season.

Or, if it suits you and you recognize that you may not be fully in control of the spending decisions you think you’re making, go about your business, continue to play a role as a reliable cog in the Black Friday marketing machine without much thought. It’s fine to want to spend money, but the best way to do that is to take a thoughtful approach, looking beyond the hoax of the Black Friday deal, and consider the consequences to your finances before you swipe your credit card or otherwise complete your purchase.

What are your plans for this year’s Black Friday?

Photo: Flickr

Published or updated November 20, 2012. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Revanche

I’m trying to decide if there’s anything I might actually need to gift people that makes it worth getting up for on Friday but I haven’t thought of anything yet. I may spend the day lounging with Monty Python and the Flying Circus DVDs instead. :)

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avatar Amy Leigh Strickland

I have written about the evils of Black Friday (and the myth that these are the best deals of the year) before. In 2007 while working retail, a competitive shopper knocked a stack of TVs down on my head. I detest the day. My Black Friday moral code will not permit me to even put on real clothes; it’s pajamas for me. Pajamas, carols, decorating, baking, and wrapping what I already have purchased. Merry Christmas!

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avatar qixx ♦1,890 (Half-Dollar)

This year i will be out in the madness. Since i work in retail i will be behind a cash register taking people’s hard earned money for things that are not even good deals.

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avatar Miranda

Ah, a post after my own heart :) I rant endlessly this time of year, since Black Friday always overshadows Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday. We stay home. If anyone does any shopping, it’s my husband, but normally he just does it online, looking for Amazon’s Lightning Deals on gifts we plan to buy for relatives.

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avatar Paul

I plan to do absolutely nothing. It’s been a number of years since I watch the move, Affluenza, http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/affluenza/, and it really resonated with me. From that point on, my purchasing has greatly declined and I don’t participate in the glut that is consumerism. Sure, I still by some things that I need or want, but they are few and far between. I prefer to spend my money on things like vacations.

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avatar Yana

I will avoid the unthinking Black Friday craze, though I may end up going to the grocery store. I did see a couple of things I’d like at Amazon, but because of now having to pay sales tax, I will likely buy nothing there unless the items are reduced in price by about 50% – and I don’t expect that will happen.

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avatar Robert

I did some Black Friday shopping online last night, after researching prices as well as the quality/reviews of the items I purchased. Plus they have been on a list of needed items for some time. Nothing extravagant.

Did need groceries and went to Fred Meyer [a Kroger Store] that is one of those all under one roof type of stores. At 4:30pm it was empty, even for a Friday night. Was able to get regular shopping done in record time. Parking lot was empty. Went to Petco, having to get Cat food. With a Sale and a coupon saved $12.00.

Today with the wealth of information on the Web, there is no need to line up for a so-called sale at 4:00am.

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avatar Kathleen @ Frugal Portland

I didn’t leave the house on black Friday and for cyber Monday my only spending is to a nonprofit!

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avatar Jim

I bought nothing this black friday, or Cyber Monday? Why? One, the crowds are not worth the savings and two I find the older I get my priorities have changed. Stuff matters less, family matters more. The one with the most toys at the end does not win.

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avatar Yana

I actually did end up buying two pairs of shoes on Cyber Monday, but the website I used (which shall remain nameless, lest they be forced to charge sales tax) did not have a sale on the shoes. This happened to come up because a friend of mine joined an athletic club, and if I were to join, I needed appropriate shoes for my problem feet. I found the shoes on Amazon, Zappos & Online Shoes, the latter of which had me filling my cart to get their $30/off $100 – but when I saw sales tax at the end, I fled without making the purchase. Instead, I found another site and Googled for coupons. I got 40% off, free shipping and no sales tax, and because the color I want will not be available until Feb 2013, I ordered a second pair that will arrive shortly. What a fabulous deal – and the only kind that allowed me to make the purchases.

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