You can’t listen to your car radio, open your mailbox, turn on the television or watch a YouTube or Hulu video these days without being bombarded with ‘Black Friday’ mania. What was once a lazy day-after-Thanksgiving to mark the beginning of the holiday shopping season (for those who celebrate gift-giving holidays) has now become a massive event in and of itself.
The term ‘Black Friday’ now holds a key place in our common language, however not many actually know the origins of the name. The term ‘Black Friday’ refers to an accounting trend in the commercial retailer business. Historically, most retailers were operating at a loss – in accounting terms known as “in the red” – for most of the calendar year. It wasn’t until the shoppers hit the malls on the day after Thanksgiving that retailers would be turning a profit, or “in the black.”
That’s right. The unofficial holiday of ‘Black Friday’ is all about profits. And retailers are blatantly telling us this, screaming it at us, with their bombardment of ‘Black Friday’ this and ‘Black Friday’ that. Not to mention the offensive ‘Door Buster’ sales in the wake of serious injuries and many deaths from shoppers literally busting down the doors and trampling fellow shoppers or associates.
In the modern day world of retail profiteering, stores must do what they can to gain a competitive edge. That used to mean opening up at 6:00am, then 5:00am, and then 4:00 am, with eager shoppers camping all night to get their Xbox or ‘Call of Duty’ game at a nominal discount. Eventually stores opened at midnight – no need to camp out to be one of the proud first to propel Best Buy into the profit-making zone. In recent years, midnight became 8pm on Thanksgiving. This year, however, we see the ultimate shift – many ‘Black Friday’ sales are starting on Thanksgiving Day. That’s right, ‘Black Friday’ has literally consumed Thanksgiving.
Maybe in the past this was a key part of keeping our economy strong. Consumers shopped, retail chains stayed afloat and provided decent wages to their employees. But today we see a very different picture. In fact, behemoths like Walmart are turning a profit from January 1st, and it is estimated that ‘Black Friday’ can boost their profits from $14B to $19B in any given year. If the retailer is already in the black, as many are, can’t we pin them for false advertising?
On the bright side, if the retailers are making more profits then that will trickle back into the economy, right? Wrong. The median hourly wage for a retail employee in 2012 was $10.15 an hour, and these wages are steadily declining compared to the cost of living. Then of course there’s Walmart, with their enormous profit margin, actually driving down the wages for other retailers. These jobs don’t come with benefits, and if they do, many retailers have been known to keep hours just below the threshold to qualify for benefits. And the reality is that many employees during this time of the year are seasonal temps, skimmed from the unemployment pool by employers at a lower cost so they can stretch those profits. To top it off, this retail is one of the fastest growing sectors, just behind fast food.
Now, I’m not a huge fan of the story of Thanksgiving, the exploitation and decimation of Indigenous populations, but I do enjoy lazy tryptophan filled days communing with good friends or family around the dinner table. For many, Thanksgiving is simply a time to take a break and reflect on the things we are grateful for. Now that ‘Black Friday’ sales have crept into Thanksgiving, consumers are now tempted by what they want or what they could have. The elevation of status is an obnoxious example of getting duped into valuing corporations’ profit margins over community, family or workers’ well being.