Black Friday – Spreading Like Retail Ebola

I am both mystified and appalled to discover that the Black Friday phenomenon is fast becoming a new international “holiday.”

In scrolling through my Twitter feed last night, I came across a BBC News article describing how police have been called to supermarkets across the UK to deal with unruly “Black Friday” crowds.  My first reaction was to laugh, of course, at the very idea of a Black Friday stampede to get a deal on iceberg lettuce.

But then I read the article, and I suspect that “supermarket” must refer to a different kind of shopping establishment across the pond.  One shopper referred to getting a great deal on a coffee machine, a 70% discount, at a store called Tesco.  Apparently Tesco has said that it expects Black Friday to beat Boxing Day sales in 2014.

Boxing Day sales?  My family used to live in Canada, and what I know about Boxing Day is that it’s the day after Christmas, it’s the day on which Downton Abbey sorts used to give servants their Christmas “boxes,” and it’s a holiday on which all stores are closed.  But now, apparently, it’s a holiday similar to our Black Friday, in which retailers and deal-hungry customers engage in what can only be described as crass commercialism.

Black Friday got its start in the United Kingdom four years ago, according to the BBC article:

Black Friday—historically the big sales day in America that follows the Thanksgiving holiday—has been adopted by an increasing number of shops in the UK.

It was brought over by online store Amazon four years ago after internet shoppers noticed the US got the best deals.

The Black Friday craze has not only infected Europe.  This year it is spreading to Asia, as well.  An article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, titled “Spreading Black Friday Fever to China’s Shoppers,” says

China doesn’t officially celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas, but American retailers are hoping to convert a generation of consumers in the world’s most populous country into year-end binge buyers anyway.

Apparently, thanks to Alipay, a new Pay Pal imitator tied to e-commerce giant Alibaba, American retailers like Macy’s and American Apparel can make their Black Friday discounts available to Chinese shoppers.

This isn’t really a bad thing, of course, especially for Macy’s and American Apparel.  But the idea of Black Friday becoming a worldwide phenomenon kind of depresses me.  I avoid malls like the plague (to use another disease-related metaphor, which I’ve seemed employ a couple of times in this post already 🙂 ) during the Christmas shopping season.  I dislike the crowds, and there’s something antithetical about the euphoric combination of generosity and abject greed that shoppers seem to exhibit at this time of year.

They are shopping, presumably, to find the nicest gifts they can at the most affordable prices in order to honor people that they love.  But somehow, through an alchemy that is shrouded in magic and beyond my comprehension, that admirable sentiment undergoes a transformation to become pure avarice.  At least that’s what it looks like to me when people are assaulted (at best) and trampled to death (at worst) in the interest of a “deal.”

The most troubling part, and I know that reasonable people can disagree on this, is the fact that Black Friday is becoming seen as a holiday in and of itself.  The day itself is an actual federal holiday, meaning that U.S. government offices are closed, and many states also close up on this day.  Which is fine, as far as giving people extra time off to travel and visit with family.  That makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is that Black Friday, an American retail phenomenon meant to jump start the Christmas shopping season, should be perceived as and adopted by people in other countries entirely out of context as a representation of an American day of celebration.  On the introduction of Black Friday shopping to China, Jingming Li, U.S. president of Alipay, had this to say in the Wall Street Journal article:

We’re just bringing more attendees to this American holiday.

The definition of “holiday,” to me, is the celebration of some unique aspect of a culture’s history or identity.  It’s both ironic and fitting—while at the same time fairly depressing—that Chinese citizens are about to become better acquainted with “the real America” through Black Friday shopping.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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3 Responses to Black Friday – Spreading Like Retail Ebola

  1. Helen Lamb says:

    I agree too, loathe malls and shopping madness myself. Where, I wonder does the ‘Black Friday’ come from? Friday 13th is always called Black Friday here (Australia/New Zealand) and when I lived in the US quite a few years ago I do not recall that term for the Friday after Thanksgiving, although it was even then recognised as the biggest shopping day of the year.

    • I looked the term up earlier today, and it looks like it originated in the 1960s among Philadelphia police and taxi/bus drivers to refer to the traffic congestion associated with day-after-Thanksgiving shopping and people arriving in town for the Army-Navy football game. I’m not sure why they called it “Black” Friday, though. It apparently had nothing to do with retail businesses being “in the black” but presumably with the “black” mood the police officers and public-transport drivers felt having to deal with all of the stress associated with that day. Interesting. I’d never known all that. Maybe the Australia/New Zealand Friday the 13th expression gets at a similar idea?

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