Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Black Friday Approaches

The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the most active shopping days of the year. The tradition is not new -- even Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the importance of the day to the economy when he moved the date of Thanksgiving in order to expand the Christmas shopping season during the Great Depression. An article on the web site of the FDR Library and Museum explains (under the title, "The Year We Had Two Thanksgivings"):

At the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday; it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. However, Thanksgiving was always the last Thursday in November because that was the day President Abraham Lincoln observed the holiday when he declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Franklin Roosevelt continued that tradition, but he soon found that tradition was difficult to keep in extreme circumstances such as the Great Depression. His first Thanksgiving in office, 1933, fell on November 30th, the last day of the month, because November had five Thursdays that year. Since statistics showed that most people did not do their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving, business leaders feared they would lose money, especially during the Depression, because there were only 24 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They asked Franklin Roosevelt to make Thanksgiving one week earlier. President Roosevelt ignored those concerns in 1933, but when Thanksgiving once again threatened to fall on the last day of November in 1939, FDR reconsidered the request and moved the date of Thanksgiving up one week. Thanksgiving 1939 would be held, President Roosevelt proclaimed, on November 23rd and not November 30th.

Changing the date of Thanksgiving seemed harmless enough, but in actuality proved quite controversial. It was so upsetting that thousands of letters poured into the White House once President Roosevelt announced the date change. Some retailers were pleased because they hoped the extra week of Christmas shopping would increase profits, but smaller businesses complained they would lose business to larger stores. Other companies that depended on Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November lost money; calendar makers were the worst hit because they printed calendars years in advance and FDR made their calendars out of date for the next two years. Schools were also disrupted by Roosevelt's decision; most schools had already scheduled vacations and annual Thanksgiving Day football games by the time they learned of Thanksgiving's new date and had to decide whether or not to reschedule everything. Moreover, many Americans were angry that Roosevelt tried to alter such a long-standing tradition and American values just to help businesses make more money.*

As opposition grew, some states took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential Proclamation. Some governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th.
While "Black Friday" -- a term that seems to date to the 1970s -- has the reputation of being the busiest shopping day of the year, various sources ( and Wikipedia, among others) note that in recent years, the Saturday before Christmas has taken the title, while the Friday after Thanksgiving is much farther down the list, ranking between the fourth and eighth busiest, depending on the year.

What is more important is that Black Friday tends to be the day on which most retail businesses switch from red ink to black ink on their account books. That is, up until the day after Thanksgiving, most of these businesses have not yet turned a profit, which they can then use to reward their investors or help grow the business for future years.

When the term "Black Friday" first entered the general lexicon, many retailers seemed embarrassed by it, since the term "black" is associated with things sinister, sad, and discomfiting. More recently, however, many businesses have embraced it.

For example, has set up a special web page for Black Friday purposes. Amazon has also created a widget that will update specials throughout the course of the day.

In response to what are perceived as the excesses of Black Friday, anti-consumer activists have created a movement called "Buy Nothing Day," which often involves street theatre, agitprop, and chanting as well as a decision not to purchase anything that day. The origins can be traced to about 15 years ago, according to the official "International Buy Nothing Day" organization:
what is now coming to be firmly known around the planet as the World Buy Nothing Day campaign traces to several initiatives, places and names. The first "No Shop Day" (as it was initially called) that we know of was started in 1992 as a personal initiative by Ted Dave, a Canadian who made his living by working in the advertising world. His idea was to organize a collective protest against the unrelenting calls to overconsume, with the advertising and marketing professions at the core. His original motto was: "Enough is enough!"
And now there is a response to the response. Two different Facebook "events" have appeared, created independently of each other, with tongue-in-cheek but also with a serious purpose in mind.

The first one I found is called "Buy Everything Day" and it explains itself thusly:
On November 23, scores of misguided people will send a message about consumerism by participating in Buy Nothing Day.

Buy Nothing Day likely attracts people of a certain philosophical and political persuasion (read: lefty, pro-worker, anti-corporate, etc, etc, etc); however, paradoxically, those disproportionately affected (theoretically, or course, if persuading the masses to stay out of the shops was possible) would be low-income hourly employees and not corporations.

The idea that consumption is a bad thing is, well, a bad thing. Consumption is inherently good, and buying stuff makes gives us jobs and makes our economy work.

And seriously, since you'll just make up for it the next day, what's the point? Therefore, I respectfully suggest you save up your pennies and on November 23, shop until you drop.
I thought the phrase "Buy Everything Day" was a bit hyperbolic, so I was pleased to find the more (to my mind, at least) modestly named "Buy Something Day," which originated in Sweden (yes, Virginia, there are free-market economic thinkers even in Sweden) and has clear and sustainable goals:
If people keep their money in their mattress, the economy will stagnate and stand still. When money's shifting owners, it creates synergical effects. Of course rich people will also benefit from money moving around - but ultimately, those who have less will gain more.

And fighting poverty must always come before opposing wealth.

Therefore - save what you must save for your family and yourself. But not for no reason. Spend the money you want to spend. When you keep your money in your wallet, you don't protest against Coca-Cola, McDonald's or Nestlé. They don't give a shit. You only protest against your local entrepreneurs and merchants. People who invest their lives in providing you with the stuff you want.

Every day should be the Buy Something Day.

(The date is, however, set to be in correspondence to the stupidest idea ever - at least since the death penalty and the European CAP - "Buy Nothing Day".)
Since the goals of each group are aligned with my own philosophy (see my article, "A Moral Case for Christmas Commercialism," which, I am told, has been "making the rounds of the Internet"), I signed up for both events. I hardly expect to be buying "everything" this Friday, but I do have my eye on at least one "something." As a matter of fact, I decided to put off a purchase until Friday just so I can do my bit. What I have in mind is a VCR/DVD recorder that I will use to archive the home movies my family made in the 1960s and 1970s (at least those that have already been converted to VHS).

Those of you who also want to play their part in "Buy Something Day" might just wander over to my wish list and pick out a Christmas gift for their favorite blogger.

Update: For news about Black Friday 2008 and new (but quirky) gift ideas, check out this Thanksgiving Day post.

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