When 34 year old Jdimytai Damour arrived for work in the early hours of Friday, November 28th, 2008, he expected a stressful day ahead of him. An employee at the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, NY, Mr. Damour was gearing up for the store’s annual Black Friday sale, which included heavily discounted items like a Samsung plasma TV and Wrangler jeans. When a crowd that had swelled to well over 2,000 in the hours before dawn was let loose into the store, Mr. Damour was trampled to death by frenzied shoppers. The case of Mr. Damour’s death has been oft highlighted in criticisms of Black Friday, when critics express their frustration over a mob’s complete disregard for human life and well-being in their quest to purchase a heavily discounted big screen TV.
Black Friday is a very curious event. It has almost become a parody of itself, highlighted by widespread mocking on social media. The animated series South Park even got in on the act with a fantastic multi-episode arc that lampooned the vicious nature of Black Friday shoppers and the helpless employees charged with maintaining order. Despite the criticism and widespread awareness of how violent and awful the events of Black Friday are, sales records keep getting broken year after year. Videos of Black Friday brawls on YouTube and Facebook are an annual event.
As all of the excitement is going on, a great deal of smug moral posturing is broadcast on social media by enlightened anti-capitalists who decide to sit back and watch the proles in action. It’s easy to dismiss the activities of Black Friday as sad, pathetic, or alarming, but there’s a lot more to it than someone scoring a $200 flat screen or a $12 toaster. To better understand why the thought of purchasing a consumer good would drive large amounts of people to stampede through stores the size of aircraft hangars, we need to explore what motivates people to purchase things in the first place.
When humans stopped being nomadic with the introduction of agriculture in the Middle East around 9,000 years ago, the social invention of the civilization was created. For about 8,800 of these years, the concept of consumer goods was not in the vocabulary of 99% of the population. Unless you were part of the ruling class, the only things you were interested in purchasing were those necessary for your survival – food, shelter, and clothing to keep you warm and looking fly.
When the Industrial Revolution occurred, a surplus of goods began to be produced, and the only limit was the capital available with which to purchase them. Production accelerated at a fantastic rate, and as a result, the cost of goods dramatically decreased. With the increase in manufacturing came an increase in jobs, and this led to two things: more products and more money to spare. Labour was transformed into a commodity that needed to be purchased.
The class who would have been peasants in the 13th century were now paid workers in the 19th century. The level of access to goods and services available to the average person in the 19th century would have been reflective of someone of royal blood from the 13th century. The gap between classes has closed an incredible amount from the dawn of the agricultural-based economy to our current knowledge-based economy.
Status is arguably the most desirable trait in our world today. We are more intimately connected with those of high status than ever before. We can catch a glimpse into the lives of our most revered celebrities by opening a tabloid magazine or surfing through their Instagram account. While these lifestyles may be presented through a lens that biases our celebrities’ lifestyles for good or evil, the thought that we have this sort of access today is remarkable.
Imagine if a king in 13th century England were to appear on the cover of tabloid magazines or if they posted selfies of themselves strolling about their palace? The mystique that royalty kept from the greater population aided in reinforcing their perceived greatness and reverence from their subjects. By portraying themselves in an untouchable, god-like state, royals prevented their subjects from emulating them. When the class gap has closed so that people can at least emulate the lifestyles of their wealthy idols, so did our behaviour towards purchasing. And the farther away we are from actually living that lifestyle, the greater investment we place in trying to achieve it. This is partially why North Americans possess some of the highest personal debt levels in the world.
Status, like anything affected by goods and services, is subject to an economics concept known as diminishing marginal utility. Basically, the less you have of something, the greater proportional investment you’ll make to acquire it. Each unit of the good or service in question decreases its utility, so the first unit of something is more important than the second, and so on.
It’s a safe assumption to state that the majority of our purchases during the year are within our means. The average North American can’t go out and pay cash for a Ferrari and a week’s worth of outfits from Barney’s or Saks Fifth Avenue. Most of us who own a vehicle can afford our car payments and insurance, and our clothes primarily come from our local shopping mall or department store.
Once in a while, we can afford to splurge on ourselves on a special occasion like our birthday or at Christmas. Since splurging is an expensive process, we are always eager to afford high quality goods at the lowest possible price. This is the entire basis of the outlet store business model. Sadly, this preference for high-value items at low prices has led to an exploitation of consumers through the outlet store industry. Outlet stores appear to offer premium brands at low prices, but the reality is, the products sold in outlet stores bear little to no resemblance to the mainline goods produced by the parent label.
When an event like Black Friday arrives, many consumer goods previously out of the reach of most consumers became attractively affordable. For the average North American from a middle class family, an event like Black Friday is seen as a nice bonus, but it won’t make or break their lifestyle. However, for low income families, major shopping days like Black Friday are viewed in a much different light: this is one of the only days of the year where a family may be able to afford some of the consumer goods they desire, and since status is such a powerful motivator, many will become fiercely competitive and even violent in their plight to obtain these goods. First coined by Thorstein Veblen in 1896, conspicuous consumption runs rampant no matter what socioeconomic class you’re in. Humans are naturally competitive as a species, whether it’s expressed through sport, academics, or our patterns of consumption.
While mass shopping events like Black Friday can trigger predominantly negative opinions about society, capitalism, or consumer behaviour, one thing to keep in mind is this: our economy has evolved a great deal over the past 200 years, and the widespread presence of a system is usually indicative that it best satisfies the present conditions. Since the past century, the corporation was the dominant institution on the planet, with 52 of the 100 largest economies on the planet belonging to individual corporations; the remaining 48 to countries. But the age of the corporation is slowly ending as we enter into a more entrepreneurial-based economy.
According to author and management consultant Ron Davison, a prevalence of systems thinking will help to redefine the economy in the next 50 years as the current economic frameworks are reinvented and creative new products and methods by which we do business are formulated. There is consumer data to support this: consumers are now spending more money on experiences than things. Perhaps visions of violent shoppers on days like Black Friday are partially to blame. One thing is for certain: our current society has recognized the dangers of rampant consumerism and our priorities have shifted.
The days of Black Friday as we know it may very well be numbered. Instead of clamouring for big screen TVs, we may be waking up early to purchase cheap airline tickets for our next vacation, or buying a discounted experience at a new local restaurant. Regardless of where our dollars are being spent, remember that days like Black Friday highlight income inequality over all else. It’s not a particularly enlightened position to distance oneself from those wrestling with each other over a toaster. Some people are unfortunate enough to be in that position – often through no fault of their own. Instead of acting smug by abstaining from the melee, perhaps be thankful that you don’t have to risk losing an arm just so you can afford a waffle iron.