Thanksgiving, the Celebration of Consumerism and Cultural Dominance

I don’t meant to smash Thanksgiving as it means to a lot of people: a time for families and friends to gather and give thanks for each other and for their good fortune. However, in a weak economy with ever-increasing Black Friday sales and store hours, Thanksgiving has become the National Shopping Holiday, second only to the Saturday before Christmas, according to the data since 2002*. Last year 212 million people went shopping on Black Friday, well above predictions of 138 million and above the previous year’s turnout of 195 million, and total spent on Friday alone was $10.66 billion, for an average of $50.28 per shopper. The total spending for the whole post-Thanksgiving weekend 2010 was $41.2 billion; that’s $365.34 per shopper. Although not every holiday shopper shops post-Thanksgiving weekend, it suggests if not proves the focus of holiday shopping on Black Friday to note that the average amount spent during the entire 2010 holiday season was $112.20. This year the annual NRF survey reports an expected 152 million planning to shop tomorrow (they will provide data from this year’s event on Nov. 27), and an anticipated $130.43 per shopper (see also here).

Here in Gainesville, people had begun camping by Wednesday morning outside the Best Buy, presumably for the Sharp 42″ HDTV selling for $200. Similar stakeouts are happening round the country.

Black Friday has its dangers; most notably, the 2008 death of an employee at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart in Nassau, who died of asphyxia after being stampeded by hordes of shoppers. The incident triggered a lawsuit and an OSHA investigation, with Wal-Mart insisting they were not culpable. The company ended up settling and spending more on good publicity and donations than it would have for a fine. Additional info here.

While deaths by Black Friday is certainly not a leading cause of death around the holidays, it is common for both employees and shoppers to experience injuries. The national shock over the Valley Stream death prompted many to curse the frantic shoppers for giving way to a herd mentality or being willing to harm others for their own’s sake. Normally I am more cynical and willing to dismiss humans as, after all, animals, but as anthropology teaches us, humans are an animal that lives in a constructed world. Observers of herds of perisso- and artiodactyla or groups of rodents traveling in large groups might surmise, as several fall off cliffs or stumble, that herding is a blind activity in which all participants have lost a sense of self-preservation or and ability to calculate movement and speed necessary to manuever obstacles. And yet a human crowd is nothing like a herd of wildebeest. When wildebeest and other creatures move in a herd, they are identifying similar creatures and improving their chances of survival by staying in a crowd large enough to defend against would-be predators, and navigating changes in the landscape as a large, fluid group. Humans, however, pick focal points and move towards  them. Cultural predisposition towards moving on the right side of a landscape or the left determine some patterns of crowd movement, but humans don’t navigate according to groups. This is why crowds can easily reach a crush point; the masses, unable to adapt to the shape of a landscape, bottleneck themselves or push into a barrier, and do not leave safe distance between themsleves and others. The bigger the crowd and the smaller the space, the more likely it is that people will die in the crowd (and of asphyxia, not being crushed), because humans are extremely reliant on artifacts as landmarks in their visual field, and apply an understanding of a basic shape from memory (think of those line illusions you saw in grade school). So a mass of shoppers will orient themselves towards big glass doors, the sight of tall shelves and big signs, or any available open space, and when all rush towards these things, injuries occur.

This is hardly the fault of shoppers or even retailers. Once the practice of Black Friday sales began, it perpetuates itself despite the dangers because it manages to escape its self-destruction. Rather than avoid attending the sales because of the dangers, shoppers brace themselves by getting there as early as possibly (3 days early sometimes!), using carts as buffers, and occasionally becoming defensive to the point of physical aggression (just YouTube Black Friday to see some of this violence). They do this not because they are selfish, animalistic, or evil, but because the ethos of a consumeristic culture emphasize bargain-hunting, obtaining valuable objects, and boosting the economy.

More on the cultural dominance aspects of Thanksgiving later…

* With one exception; see source here.


Shoppers should put purchases into perspective

NRF predictions for 2011

Fewer plan to shop on Black Friday 2011