The late George Carlin once noted how two of the most popular activities among Americans are buying and eating, and frankly it seems this year that reality has become more apparent than ever. As we inch closer to Thanksgiving, brick & mortar stores are working harder than ever to exceed expectations and have Black Friday weekend sales perform even better than in previous years. In order to help facilitate these sales, many retailers are having their stores remain open earlier and earlier, with some staying open and offering deals this year on Thanksgiving Day, as opposed to the traditional Black Friday.
It’s hard to argue that we, as Americans, couldn’t have seen this coming. Over the past 20 years the concept of Black Friday has shifted from the general holiday shopping period following Thanksgiving into the crazed, 5:00 a.m. rush it had been since the late nineties. (BlackFriday.com “History of Black Friday”) In 2011, retailers, fighting staunch competition from internet-fueled “Cyber Mondays,” alongside a weak economy, decided to make an even more aggressive approach to Black Friday by opening stores at midnight, prompting almost two Black Friday events—one to take place at midnight after the end of Thanksgiving, and another to reprise only hours later. As a result of these changes to the Black Friday cycle, retailers saw record-setting sales from the Black Friday weekend alone. (CNN Money, “Black Friday shopping hits a new record,” 11.25.12)
Clearly the next logical step was to just do away with the formalities and simply merge Thanksgiving and Black Friday together, which shockingly some retailers felt to be appropriate this year. To name a few, WalMart, K-Mart and The Gap have all announced plans to be open on Thanksgiving, and re-open either early on Black Friday or even at midnight. The worst offender, WalMart, is choosing not to close at all, opting for 24-hour store access through Thanksgiving with deals to begin around 8:00 p.m. on Friday.
The reasoning behind this, George Carlin jokes aside, is multi-faceted. For one, there is an apparent motivation for profit by retailers that is stronger than ever as they feel the stress that our 21st-century form of shopping imposes on it.
As fewer and fewer customers want to play the “Black Friday Game” of waking up extremely early when they can sit at home on their computers—in their underwear—to buy things, there is a motivation to encourage customers to shop before they go to bed, and now before they even set the dinner table. This in turn is also strengthened by analysts, some of which think the move will spur record sales.
It is not just the actual act of consumers that motivates these marketing decisions, but also the analysts, which report predictions of sales, which then motivate these decisions.
A recent statement from Adobe, a major provider of online and digital software, believes this will be a record year for Black Friday weekend, but will culminate with Cyber Monday, hence why retailers are motivated more than ever to make their sales as convenient as they are online. (VentureBeat, “Adobe forecasts record holiday sales: $1.1B Thanksgiving, $1.6B Black Friday, $2.3B Cyber Monday,” 11.05.13)
Another reason is rather societal, and although its reasoning has to do with retailers partially, the fact remains that we are as much to blame as retailers are for Black Friday since we allow this to continue to happen. Thanksgiving is a holiday that has been consumerized by us as Americans in the last 60 years by the media and by our perceptions of us.
After all, the perceived “most important parts” of the holiday—from turkey dinners, to football, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” featured on the television—are acts of consumerization of the holiday to revolve around things we should watch, buy, or eat. Bear in mind these are attributes for a holiday that was once deeply ingrained in a history of reflection, thanks and appreciation for what we have, rather than what we wish we had. It’s up to us to accept this fact regarding the current state as a holiday and the fact we willingly accept it no longer as a holiday of thanks, and instead now as a holiday shopping kick-off, plus a family gathering subjective to a consumerist fixation on a large, American fowl.
That being said, there is also an issue of how we feel connected to the people who make Black Friday what it is. Many, but not all, Vassar students will be going home or elsewhere to visit family on Thanksgiving and then enjoy the extended weekend. Still, some will not have this privilege because their family needs to make ends meet, which involves being obligated to work on Thanksgiving now. We don’t think often about this if we are not directly affected, but it’s an issue of classism that is fueled by a skewed perception of the consumer demand. We speculate demand, hence why retailers choose to do this. There is, however, little consideration by consumers or retailers of the effect on those who will be forced or obligated to work these awkward hours.
So, what can we do? How do we feed our devilish addiction to consumer goods alongside our infatuation with a holiday that has, for many, lost its meaning? In one perspective, this is perhaps what we wanted out of Thanksgiving in the first place. Perhaps it is merely the nature of the beast that we are transitioning to this state where Thanksgiving is nothing more than a marker for the Christmas lights to go up and for holiday sales to get started. Should we accept this or should we try to reclaim what has been lost? Should we instead work to fight back this classism and try to rebuild an appreciation of the holiday beyond buying a big turkey and watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? Not that these things are terrible, but that the experience is instead supposed to be about the family you engage it with, not the acts alone or following the traditions for the sake of tradition.
Unfortunately I don’t have an answer to this question. I wish I did. I think we as a society are conflicted and this is something that hits very close to our desires alongside what we should hold valuable. Perhaps after this Thanksgiving I will have an answer, but unfortunately it will revolve around consumerism because it seems we are allowing the holiday to be so. Nonetheless I sincerely wish your Thanksgiving is not necessarily consumerist or non-consumerist, but one that gives you the opportunity to appreciate something perhaps you didn’t appreciate before. Or better yet, let Thanksgiving be whatever you want it to be, and may you enjoy at least a little bit of the time off we get in the coming week.
—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.