November 25, 2011

Black Friday, from community carnival to me-first melee

Examples of people cocooning themselves more over the past 20 years are too numerous to list. But one apparent counter-example is Black Friday -- even if only for a day, aren't people out-and-about, strengthening social bonds by buying gifts for others?

For awhile I didn't have too good of a feel for what this day has been about. I've avoided shopping on Black Friday for a very long time because I sensed that it was degenerate, totally unlike the mall during Christmastime in the '80s when it felt more like a carnival, everyone feeding and feeding off of each other's high spirits. After a little reflection and a look through newspaper articles from the '90s through today, it turns out not to be a counter-example at all.

The vague image we're given in the media, or that we invent ourselves, is of people who are so intent on buying so many presents for so many people, that they can't get in the doors early enough or behave themselves well enough. The competition to get the best gifts for others has just become too chaotic.

In reality, hardly anyone goes out on this day to buy gifts for other people; at best it's an after-thought or rationalization. Rather, buying a handful of things for others has become an excuse to buy stuff for themselves at deals that will never show up the rest of the year. Estimates from the 2000s were that anywhere between 50-75% of people were buying things for themselves while Christmas shopping, and that the average person's self-indulgence accounted for nearly one-quarter of all dollars they spent (around $150 out of $650 total).

The first references to this practice of Christmastime "self-gifting" (how's that for Newspeak?) appear in 1993. This is right as the crime rate is turning around, causing society to shift from the tragic-romantic side of the spectrum to the trivial-efficient side. Already by the early 2000s, this gradual change has moved far enough so that newspapers regularly comment on the self-centeredness of Black Friday shoppers.

An article from 2003 is headlined, "Looking out for no. 1; Survey: Consumers plan to shop for themselves this holiday season". Another from that year reads:

There is an increasing consumer-cultural emphasis on self-oriented spending - from Be Good to Yourself meals to a bespoke cable channel called Me TV. Buying baubles for yourself is just the decadent, high-end version of this. "Self-gifting is the new normal," declares Maria Salzman, global trend predictor and head strategist at Euro RSCG. "It's a real part of December. And Valentine's Day is a second self-gifting event. If there's no lover in your life, it's time to indulge yourself all the same."

By now, many of the people interviewed are so shameless in their egotism that you'd think the reporter made the quotes up. (Until you remember the "I'm-a get MINE" mentality of the 1992-and-after period.) From a 2010 NYT article which shows that this practice was not limited to the housing bubble euphoria:

Americans are shopping selfishly again.

On this year's Black Friday, retailers and analysts said they saw a surge in traffic at stores and malls over last year, and also were noticing that shoppers snapped up discretionary items for themselves rather than gifts or necessities. . . .

At an Oakland Best Buy, Jan Paolo Patena, a 19-year-old college student, was waiting to buy an external hard drive.

''Black Friday is all about me,'' he said. ''I'm not here for anyone else. This is not about Christmas presents. If somebody else wants something, they can stay out here in the cold all night.'' [Reminder: execute all Millennials.]

Rebecca Bolivar, 19, a college student who was shopping at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., said she came to buy shoes, jackets and gifts for her boyfriend, in that order.

''If I run out of money, I go first,'' she said.

At a Best Buy in Patchogue, N.Y., despite a chilly rain, the line for the 5 a.m. opening stretched about 350 yards down the street. Julio Jaber, 25, was there to buy a 55-inch TV. ''It's for myself,'' he said, shaking his head as rain fell on him. ''For somebody else? Forget it.''

Malls, like the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Va., and the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, Calif., reported similar sentiments. At Sears and Kmart, many shoppers bought on layaway, said a spokesman, Tom Aiello, indicating that the items were not gifts.

''You have more spontaneous shoppers buying things for themselves,'' said Maureen Bausch, executive vice president of business development at the Mall of America.

And so on. Again these are just a representative handful from a stream of similar articles.

If people's mindset has changed from other-focused to self-focused, that also explains why there is such a war of all against all devastating retail stores during the Christmas shopping season. We naturally hold our own satisfaction above others', so if we see a rival shopper about to get a coffee-maker that we planned to give our friend, well our friend will be just as happy with some other coffee-maker, or maybe he won't mind getting something else entirely. But if that was the coffee-maker that I wanted for myself -- then get your fucking hands off of it!

We shop for ourselves all the time without this chaos, but this time there are DEALS DEALS DEALS, and they're only here once a year. Still, the main cause of the shift has been a change in people's mindset, because they had Christmas specials before the '90s and people did not kill each other over them. It's only when combined with a newly egocentric population of shoppers that all Black Friday hell breaks loose.

Turning to Wikipedia instead of doing another Lexis-Nexis search of newspapers, the first pop culture reference to violence or chaos during Christmas shopping is the 1996 movie Jingle All the Way. This doesn't depict the general melee of the 2000s, and the battle is over a gift for someone else, not for the shoppers themselves, but remember that this is only a few years into the shift. Regular reports of violence and hostility begin showing up in the 2000s.

As late as the 1989 movie Christmas Vacation, there was an atmosphere of excitement, even anxiety, during Christmas shopping, but the department store where Clark goes for his wife didn't look like a battlefield. The only time during the '80s when anything like that happened was when Cabbage Patch Kids came out, but that was only over one product and in one year only, not a retail-sector-wide brawl year after year.

The fact that these crazed shoppers are out there hunting for deals for themselves also fits in with another major change in Christmas gift-giving since 1992 -- the gift card. After all, if everyone out there on Black Friday were so busy scooping up real tangible things for others, then why the hell do we all wind up getting a pile of gift cards?

Gift certificates existed long before gift cards, so the technology was there if anyone wanted to make use of it. But because a gift card is a half-gift, no one bothered buying them except for recipients on the outskirts of their social circle. The first gift cards began with Blockbuster in 1994, right as the crime rate was dropping, and have only exploded since then.

It's even more bizarre because gift cards are one of the few items that are NOT included in the store-wide sales. If shoppers were making such a mad dash to Black Friday bonanzas in order to get deals on gifts, rather than on indulgences, then why do they end up buying so much of something that never goes on sale?

The only way to make sense of all these changes over the past 20 years is to view Black Friday and Christmas shopping in general as now a mostly egocentric shopping spree, not an other-regarding community carnival, and one that appeals to efficiency and convenience rather than romance and fantasy.

From a rough look through articles on Black Friday shopping from 1900 through 1960, I got the same impression that the rising-crime Jazz Age had a more sublime and community-focused Christmas shopping atmosphere, while the falling-crime mid-century felt more like today's bargain-hunters temporarily leaving their cocoons to shove others off of their epic find. But I'll have to poke around more before committing to that.

There is nothing like the superorganic feeling of belonging to a crowd, but the spirit of collective effervescence, or communitas, or whatever you want to call it, has totally evaporated from Christmas shopping. A crowd or a mob feels united, whereas today all that a Black Friday shopper can join is a melee. Cloaking this naked selfishness in the garb of the gift-giving spirit just makes the whole thing even more disgusting. Don't mean to end on such a bitter note, but I just can't stand how rotten the Christmas season has become, and so quickly.

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