226 million participants, $52.4 billion dollars, and a handful of disgruntled protestors: this was the aftermath of Black Friday 2011. For big-box department stores, it was an obvious victory in marketing and sales. This year’s figures show a significant increase in both numbers of bargain-hungry shoppers and total amount of spending compared to last year. As for the protestors, most of whom referred to themselves as members of “Occupy Black Friday”, they were largely outnumbered and disregarded in their efforts to criticize the ever-apparent consumerist society that Black Friday stands for.
While deals were plentiful over the course of the weekend following American Thanksgiving, so were the misdemeanors associated with it. The most infamous of these involved a woman armed with pepper spray, who allegedly assaulted a crowd over a crate of discounted X-boxes. But it didn’t stop there. In other parts of the States, robbers shot at least two victims on separate occasions outside Wal-Mart stores while loading purchases into their cars, and fights broke out over electronics at flash-reduced prices. Several storefronts were completely ravaged, with mobs of frenzied shoppers breaking through the doors to breach the fortresses of cheap goods. The incidents are not surprising: previous Black Fridays featured shooters, pepper spray grenades, and deaths resulting from being trampled by crowds.
Having mass numbers of people with the same feverish goal in close vicinity will inevitably result in a few nasty outcomes. It’s only when the goal is something as trite as discount shopping that it starts becoming questionable. For comparison, the number of participants in Black Friday outnumbered both the total number of protestors in the Occupy Anything movement and the total number of voters in the 2008 American general election combined. That number doesn’t even account for the thousands of shoppers who hit the malls on regular days. So why is it that people are more motivated by the prospect of bargain hunting than the prospect of socioeconomic balance? Why is it so simple for marketers to inspire passion for a particular brand, but so difficult for advocates of social change to do so for their cause?
When asked why they love to shop, many people would respond with a variation of “It makes me happy.” Simple enough. Perhaps the answer to the previous questions is that shopping produces some kind of innate contentment, and that discount shopping can only add to this contentment. But is it really so innate? Over the last several decades, American (and subsequently, Canadian) consumerism has been fueled by tireless efforts to indoctrinate us to love the prospect of buying. As new media outlets emerge, flocks of retail companies appear to capitalize on them. As smaller businesses open up, larger ones move to swallow them up and increase their own appeal and market influence. Annual celebrations, from Christmas to Easter, have become little more than excuses for retail stores to reap more sales. Not only are the traditional holiday messages of thanks and family being exploited to gain sales, events like Black Friday and Boxing Days are often considered holidays in their own right now (the former having only picked up in participation in 2003). It’s come to the point where we’re killing each other – sometimes literally – for our love of goods. Whereas other historical periods have made names for themselves by invoking poignant movements or mitigating centuries’ worth of social stigma, will ours be doomed to be known as ‘the generation that sold out to stuff?’
And is acquiring all these goods even making us happier? Despite the resounding “yes” that companies would love to be believe, the statistics tell us otherwise. The percentage of the population that suffers from a clinically diagnosed depression has only increased, not decreased, across all age groups over the past few decades. The holiday season, the most active period of the year for sales, correlates to the highest rates of both stress and suicide. Whatever fleeting contentment we gain from purchasing that third HDTV at 90 per cent off is counteracted by often-forgotten facts: that possession doesn’t bestow talents; that the company of goods can’t replace the company of people; that money doesn’t buy happiness.