Someone I know is boycotting Wal-Mart. I would not be able to boycott Walmart myself, as I never shop there in the first place. My absence from Wal-Mart does not have any effect. I believe I’ve stepped inside the store twice in the past decade or longer, and I don’t remember why. The basis for avoiding the store came from visits long ago, while I was in college, and was reaffirmed by at least one of those visits in the past decade.
The stores are designed like bazaars, the people I encountered were rude and sometimes dirty, and the prices were no better than those I could find elsewhere. That’s enough to keep me away. The fact that the company does not respect its employees is another reason to avoid the retailer, but beside the point of my personal experience and preference.
Again this year, Wal-Mart stores featured brawls and arrests as people fought their way for a limited supply of marked-down items like iPad Minis. The store, and other stores like it, are not completely to blame. Yes, retailers manipulate the market to induce high demand and short supply, and this creates hysteria.
Why stores are open on the holidays.
Which comes first? Are stores, like those that open on Thanksgiving, forcing retail employees to spend less time with their families on this holiday, just responding to consumer demand? Or has the retail industry created this monster by hyping up materialism as a piece of American culture since the late 1940s through advertisements (including product placement in entertainment), changing how people living in the middle and lower classes expect to live their lives? Or has the public in the United States simply accepted this type of commercial messaging without wide criticism of behavior or philosophy?
That we’ve ended up with people trampling and killing others at Wal-Mart, like the incident in 2008, is a sad commentary on the state of American culture. The reasons that got us here are complex and intertwined. No, this type of activity, the mass hysteria surrounding the ever-expanding Black Friday time period, is not representative of everyone in the United States, however bad it looks to the outside world.
I not concerned that my not wanting to shop at Wal-Mart, for the reasons I cited above, makes me seem “elitist.” I also don’t shop in stores on the other end of the consumer spectrum, so I’m confident in the sensibility of my tastes.
“I pledge not to shop on Thanksgiving.”
This year, a popular campaign spread through social media: “I pledge to not shop on Thanksgiving. If I’m shopping, someone else is working and not spending time with their family. Everyone deserves a holiday.” A Facebook friend of mine responded to this campaign by welcoming the retail industry to the world he already lives in as an emergency responder. He, like doctors, firefighters, and police, work on holidays, but that’s understandable. If you’re in the business of saving lives, the calls can come at any time. Retail workers do not save lives. Do they deserve to be home with their families more than first responders do?
Others are calling for the government to intercede and force businesses to keep their doors closed on holidays. It’s an interesting concept; states and local governments have often historically required businesses to remain closed on Sundays. Officially, the reasons for these laws tend to be so employees can remain home with their families once a week, but you can’t ignore that the concept stems from a religious influence on government.
If shoppers led the way by refusing to shop on holidays, businesses would see no choice but to remain closed. But because every shopper wants to believe they’re scoring a deal, enough will take advantage of every opportunity. There will never be the a popular protest large enough to force stores to remain closed, but there will also never be the support for laws to do the same thing. We are headed towards a society where the retail industry will be open 24 hours a day around the holiday frenzy season.
Maybe working on holidays won’t be considered to be such a social problem in the future, if retail workers are replaced by robots (and if assaulting a robot becomes a punishable offense — there are many variables to consider). The prevalence of online shopping has probably prevented the adventures in brick-and-mortar shopping from being more deadly than it has been.
But isn’t “saving money” good for Americans?
It’s amazing that with all this focus on so-called saving money, Americans aren’t in better financial shape. Spending with discounts and bargain-hunting is far removed from “saving money.” Of course, it’s not amazing at all, because the prevalence of advertising and a culture of bargain-scouring results in more spending, not less.
As an individual, and certainly as a Consumerism Commentary reader, you may be able to exercise some control. You’re more likely to wait for only the best deals, buying only what you need, but overall, this approach to promotions, including advertising Black Friday deals and opening early, benefits the retail industry more than the purchasing public.
If these deals didn’t make tons of money for the retail industry, the shopping season would not be getting more intense every year. At the same time, a healthy retail industry is supposedly one of the keys to a booming economy. Then again, what worked in the years after World War II may not be as effective today. Retail profit margins are thinner than ever. Much of the profit goes to the manufacturers who are likely to be based outside the United States.
Can “Small Business Saturday” help?
Over the last few years, American Express has tried its own marketing campaign, supposedly to aid the economy. The company’s Small Business Saturday encourages Americans to spend money on the Saturday following Black Friday — after all their money has been spent, anyway — by patronizing local businesses. These are the businesses who can’t discount prices on the same merchandise found in large stores, but can perhaps offer products you can’t find elsewhere.
Small Business Saturday is however just an excuse to get consumers to use American Express cards more often, so the large financial corporation can increase its profits on swipe fees. Many small businesses do not accept American Express cards because the swipe fees (fees the retailer pays to credit card processing companies for each transaction) are higher than those for Visa and MasterCard, but then again, premium Visa and MasterCard credit cards, like those offering rewards and concierge services, can rival American Express in terms of high swipe fees.
So if you really want to help your local business and local economy, shop from small business as often as possible, and use cash.
How did you handle shopping through this year’s Thanksgiving holiday? Did you go shopping and did it take time away from your families? Did you use a Black Friday outing as a way to bond with your family like Erin did? Are you planning to shop locally on Saturday? Does Cyber Monday exist this year? What can society do to change today’s consumerism-focused situation, if you believe it does need to change? Can boycotting accomplish anything?
Regardless of what you’ve done on the consumer side of your life, I hope you — all Consumerism Commentary readers who celebrate Thanksgiving — had an enjoyable and thankful day.
Published or updated November 29, 2013.