Black Friday: A Morality Tale

This Black Friday, I expect that some religion commentators will write their yearly screed on the immorality of consumerism decrying the shopping frenzy gripping the nation on the day after Thanksgiving.

But I am not going to join that chorus. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t love consumerism or the outburst of materialism that accompanies American Christmas celebrations. It is, however, tediously easy for people who write columns, ministers who preach sermons, or those who are generally comfortable with their jobs or finances to look down on the rushing mobs grabbing electronics from Wal-Mart shelves. When it comes to consumerism, there exists a tendency to blame the customers for bad behavior and greed.

Of course, they are greedy people everywhere, those who will do anything to gain advantage for themselves at the expense of others—people who live in a soulless world of material possessions. But the oddest thing about the folks in lines at those discount stores: They are mostly poor, working class, or marginally middle class. These are the very people who attend church regularly, express higher levels of belief in God, and are more likely to give a higher percentage of their income to those in need. Indeed, nearly every survey in religion shows that the poorer the American, the more likely they are to be both faithful and generous.

By contrast, the rich—the people who aren’t in lines on Black Friday—are less likely to be religious, more likely to find meaning in materialism, and give a lower percentage of their income to help those in need. According to a recent New York Times story, the wealthy will spend most of their holiday cash at stores like Nordstrom, Saks, and Tiffany where there will be few sales and no door-buster specials.

On the morning of Black Friday, I watched a reporter interview two women at a mall, who had arrived early for the sales. He asked, “What are you going to buy?” The woman, clearly not a well-off person, responded: “Shoes.” He said, “Shoes? You’re not supposed to be buying shoes!” She said, “But I need shoes.” He pressed the issue, “Are you buying anything else?” “No,” she replied. “I just need new shoes.” Her companion was buying jeans. The reporter didn’t know what to say. How many people on Black Friday are like these two women?

And that is the morality tale of Black Friday. Yes, there will be mall riots over flat-screen TVs. But maybe, just maybe, people are shopping on Black Friday because they can’t afford the prices that greedy corporations charge on a regular basis—saving up to buy things like shoes on deep discount. And, of course, people who are suffering under the weight of economic inequality would like to have nice toys for their children and decent electronics (electronics are arguably a necessity to participate in 21st century western society) and the only time of the year they can afford such things is during the super-sales pushed on us by mega-business on Black Friday.

So, this year I do not want to hear the cultural elite decry people standing in line for discounts. The problem isn’t Black Friday super-sales. The problem is that America is mired in deep inequalities, that the middle class is dying, and that many millions can’t afford to buy nice things for their families without waiting in long lines on Thanksgiving night. We have become a coarser and less neighborly America, a culture where too far too many—including those who will spend their Christmas wad at high-end stores rather than Black Friday sales—are not working for the common good wherein all of us share in the benefits of living in a wealthy society.

  • Pat Pope

    Funny, I need shoes too, but I probably won’t go near the shoe store today to avoid the crowd, but I probably will in the next couple of days to take advantage of the sales.

  • http://www.danceswithklingons.wordpress.com Steven

    The only thing that our family buys on Black Friday, if we do go out to shop, is socks for me and tights for our girls. There is a HUGE sale on these at a local store every year. WE are like those ladies. I used to work in retail for many years and used to LIKE working on the day after Thanksgiving, before it was called BF, and was very good at the “upsell”. It’s very sad that we are so greedy, that we can’t understand why we are addicted to “bargains”. I say if you have to shop today, go to Goodwill and buy second hand items.

    • http://bobcornwall.com Bob Cornwall

      Going to Goodwill and buying second hand items, however, won’t create jobs. And without jobs, people can’t buy socks!

      And I say this as a liberal Christian concerned about social justice.

      • Peggy

        Goodwill/thrift shopping = good financial and natural resource stewardship = sustainability = social justice

        Jobs for whom? The items people are buying today are mostly made in foreign countries by underpaid workers. When we buy these products, we are supporting the companies who move their manufacturing out of the US and exploit workers overseas. So buying new today does not create fair-paying or American jobs.

        • http://bobcornwall.com Bob Cornwall

          Whether we like it or not, the United States has ceased to be a major manufacturing country. We are now a service/retail/financial services economy — as is true of England.

          Where we can compete is in specialized manufacturing and large manufacturing, which is why Japanese and Korean auto companies are building plants here.

          I agree about sustainability, but Goodwill isn’t going to provide good paying jobs either.

      • Hilary

        In fact, Goodwill Industries is an organization that *creates jobs*, primarily for people with disabilities. They finance this mission by reselling goods which people have donated.

        And as Peggy states below, purchasing used items from stores like Goodwill diverts a HUGE amount of materials from direct entry into the waste stream. It appears that Goodwill has “gone green” and put an emphasis on sustainability in their enterprise.

      • http://laweddingcelebrant.com Jon Bassinger-Flores

        Goodwill employees thousands of people and offers great job training and job placement resources. I say, DO shop at Goodwill on Black Friday, Pink Saturday, and every other day you can! Goodwill’s Mission

  • http://bobcornwall.com Bob Cornwall

    Thanks Diana,

    My own thoughts for the day were similar. Rather than go yell at shoppers trying to find shoes or even a nice gift for the home at a cheaper price, perhaps we can look elsewhere.

    We find ourselves in a big dilemma — how do we provide jobs for people in an economy that is rooted in our need to consume? If people don’t buy, jobs aren’t created. It’s not supply side economics, it’s demand side economics.

    But how does a call to justice fit in?

  • Peggy

    My problem with this day is that the retailers could offer these prices on other days. They do it this weekend because the whole retail concept of Black Friday is not about buying the pair of shoes, jeans or socks that one really needs, it is about stirring up the public for a frenzied holiday shopping season. If this weekend’s sales results are good, it creates excitement and confidence in the public to spend more for the rest of the holiday season — often at the expense of higher and higher credit card balances.

  • http://www.prayingthegospels.com Paul W Meier

    Thank you for changing the focus away from buyers and spending. Yet I wonder if your point is not as much about the retailers doing the selling today (for many of them are on the brink of poverty), as it is the oil companies, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies who don’t even think to offer more equitable prices on Black Friday, or any other day.

  • http://iriscat.info Sarah Morrigan

    I am ideologically radical, but I also make a distinction between principles and tactics. The anti-Black Friday demonstrations by some of my fellow Occupiers make me feel sad, as they are not targeting their angers on the 1% but rather the shoppers, the kind of people you refer to. The same is true with their favourite target, Walmart; those who work there and those who shop there are not the culprits. Often I can only afford to buy certain things at Walmart, and I usually make major purchases on the days following Christmas when prices are slashed even further below the Black Friday deals. While it is worthy supporting local businesses, it is also true that for many small towns a big box store means economic salvation, creating jobs and tax revenues where no other alternatives exist due to the death of manufacturing industries and exodus of factories, lumber mills, paper mills and agricultural processors. It is also true that whereas a small independent Main Street store in a small town only attract locals, a big box store tends to attract shoppers from a much wider radius — even up to 50 miles in some remote areas — and thus result in an immense economic boost for local government.

    Pitting one part of the 99% against other, often less-privileged, part of the 99% is exactly what the 1%ers want. True to the divide-and-conquer tactic, these demonstrations distract attentions from the systemic issues created by the 1% and its speculative economics.

  • Andy Buelow

    Thanks for giving me a different perspective on this phenomenon. In the final paragraph, I assume you mean to say that we are a coarser society.

  • Jed Smith

    Good article until Diana uses the stereotypical judgement “greedy corporations”. I work with many CEO’s and Presidents of various corporations and have witnessed immense generosity in their charitable giving. If you rightly refuse to make a blanket judgement on “black friday” shoppers, please show some consistency and don’t judge other groups, except maybe your congregation which we know are all sinners ( :

    • Dan

      You offer a helpful perspective and I appreciate the caution to avoid stereotyping all corporations and CEO’s as greedy. Do you know if the generosity you’ve witnessed would approximate or exceed the level of Biblical tithing?

    • http://www.breakpoint.org Gina

      But . . . but . . . we all know that all corporations are EEEEEVILLLE!!!

      ;-)

      Seriously, nicely put, Jed. I appreciate the author’s caution to avoid judging one group, and I appreciate your caution to avoid judging another one.

  • http://carolynhipkins.blogspot.com Carolyn Hipkins

    I never thought about Black Friday in this way before. I used to be one of those preachers who railed against people standing in line to fuel their material lusts. Never occurred to me that some are standing in line to get deals on basics. Thanks for the enlightment.

  • http://beauchampcounselingservices.com Ann E

    It is pretty difficult to sustain a “consumer based economy” without consumers. As I look around any store where I shop, I see dozens of brands and products that used to be made in the USA. Now just about everything is made in China. Buying “American” is just about impossible except for highly specialized or local artisan products. Customer service call centers are in India or Central America. Manufacturing, technical, and service jobs have to be brought back from overseas. Maybe it is time to stop subsidizing oil companies and give some of those incentives to companies that will create real jobs here.

  • Jean H

    I wasn’t going to go near the mall today, but I needed to buy boots for the Angel Tree and decided today would have the best prices. As it turned out one of the two pairs was a Black Friday sale, the other wasn’t, but it was a good price. Our mall wasn’t as bad as many today. Maybe it was my timing or maybe it’s because we live in a small city that has been hit more by the economy than just about any other place in the country.

  • Revruthucc

    I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that consumers are not to blame in this bargain-driven environment. However, I think many of us need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we feel when the dollar value of our 401k and 403b accounts and our pension funds slip because corporate profits slip. There is a systemic need for us to examine our values in light of unsustainable inequality, even as many of us profit from such inequality more than we care to acknowledge.

  • Chuck S.

    The article starts well: Let’s not judge others who choose to stand in line for a Target “door buster” sale on Black Friday, because we don’t know the whole story. But it doesn’t take long for Diana to then do some judging of her own, labeling the wealthy and corporations as evil, greedy and non-religious. Does class warfare ever work?

    A couple of things are missing from this article. One, what evidence do you have that the people standing in the lines are “mostly poor, working class, or marginally middle class?” We know many upper-middle-class people who stood in line last night. Just about everyone loves a deal.

    Two, where is your solution to the hedonism of the wealthy and corporations that you decry? If we’re going to judge, I think we should also offer a solution. Personally I don’t think stripping x-percent of profits from corporations that turn those profits over to shareholders is all that great of a solution. Remember who many of those shareholders are: Owners of 401k accounts and pension funds, including members of groups like teachers’ unions.

  • Melinda Deffenbaugh

    My daughter is out shopping today for a killer deal on diapers, and the presents she wants to give her kids for Christmas. They are a young family, with 3 kids under 5. She is going to school to become a nurse, as well as working 3 nights a week, 12 hour shifts as a CNA. Her husband works a full time day job. They work hard, have very little in material goods, and juggle a whole lot between them to take care of their little ones. I’m sure that a good majority of the people out there shopping are doing so largely because they are able to stretch that dollar just a bit farther. If the stores are going to offer it the day after Thanksgiving…then that’s when you go. It’s also become part of our cultural tradition…a holiday weekend that transitions us from being thankful and enjoying our families – to the anticipation of Christmas gift giving with all of it’s frenzy and excitement. The giving and receiving of gifts is important in and of itself….and if we choose to battle large crowds of people to find that perfect gift for less cost then…..Of course I agree with some aspects of the arguments against this day and what it represents about us as a culture, but do agree that it’s become just another way for us to strike out at others without knowing the whole story.

  • Catherine

    I’m not buying anything today. I did need to go get a couple of things as Christmas prezzies to send out of the Country – and they do need to get into the mail – but made a decision that today is my ‘buy nothing day’. I’ll get it tomorrow.

  • Ann (Vermont)

    I know some people going just for the excitement of the hunt.
    My criticism, tho’ is more at the barrage of advertising that seeks to persuade us that the meaning of the season is in extravagant decor, hyperkinetic events, and finding the “perfect” gift (whatever that is)–and a lack of education about how advertising and merchandising manipulates unwary shoppers.

  • Janet L. Bohren

    You pointed out such an important issue about inequality in the US that shows its face so clearly on Black Friday (which is now ending as I write this). I pray many did get toys for their children at good prices and also electronics and other things for themselves at real sale prices. The news reported that at most places things went OK but there were the sad news of people getting shot and pepper sprayed as people fought over sale items or they were accosted outside the store for their money and purchases. I truly pray that God will bring a gentler tone to all our efforts this advent season.

  • Lynn

    These observations are true. But consider the violence that accompanies Black Friday. This year a woman pepper sprayed twenty other shoppers to get a video game system. I don’t care what her income level is. This behavior is abhorrent. The “principalities and powers” and the rich do indeed perpetrate systemic evil. But anyone–rich, middle class, or poor– who engages is such behavior is also a sinner.

    • http://www.breakpoint.org Gina

      Lynn, it’s interesting that you conflate the “principalities and powers” with the rich, when the passage clearly states that we are NOT fighting against flesh and blood (of any income level).

  • http://www.peachesandcorn.blogspot.com Shannon Lumley

    I love this view. The only reason I got out yesterday was because my twin sons NEEDED new tennis shoes. (One had completely blown out his) I knew I would get good buys, they had shown me name brand shoes they wanted, AND I had a coupon for the store. I did find some other good buys, yesterday. However, most of what I purchased, was NOT for Christmas, but, mainly necessity. To be honest, this is the first time in years I haven’t gone out just to find gifts. I love the hustle and bustle, just wasn’t into it this year. Thanks for the perspective!

  • Jerry Avise-Rouse

    “Does class warfare ever work?” Yes! It has worked very well for the 1% for the last 30 + years. Union busting, suppression of wages, demonization of public employees and government in general…

  • ===== Roger =====

    Prepare thyself for a seriously contrarian but absolutely sincere perspective here which will put to a test the ideal of “tolerance” on the part of many readers of this BLOG.

    I actually have been what we in America call “poor”–a state of economic existence, by the way, that would be a blissful and enormous step up for those Eritrean or South Sudanese refugees sleeping outside on dirt, starving, diseased and besieged by flies. Just keeping some perspective here…

    Having been “poor”, I know first-hand what it’s like to go for the sales on *essential* items. I-Pods, TVs, etc. are not essential items. They’re just not. Period. In fact, I don’t know what is at a store like Best Buy. We all purchase such stuff because we want it, not because we need it.

    What we *need* are staple groceries (food, toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, cleaning supplies, etc.), medicine, and basic clothing; and these aren’t the overwhelming bulk of targets for Black Friday sales. Partial, tangential, token, happenstance parts of such sales, yes…I’ll grant that…but read and watch the bulk of the ads and see for yourself. The culture portrayed in the ads for the stuff sold on Black Friday clearly emphasizes having the latest and greatest, genuflecting to the idolatry of a materialistic world.

    Or, to put it another way: What is the proportion of Black Friday ads that you have seen for aspirin, bananas, orange juice…or Bibles?

    Thought so.

    If the shoppers are camped outside Payless Shoes or any given grocery store, I could buy her argument at least in part. But I don’t. Black Friday instead ideally represents a phrase she used in an entry farther down: the “powers of worldly dominion and domination “. Black Friday is of the world, not of the Lord. And therein lies the problem. We’re all guilty to some extent. And when we try to endorse and excuse it based on an unrepresentative paucity of anecdotal exceptions, we instead contribute to the problem. Meanwhile Satan laughs all the way to the bank.

    Also, the author herself also engages in a bit of disingenuous stereotyping herself by labeling everyone who criticizes Black Friday mobs as “cultural elite”. What was that verse about removing the plank from one’s own eye?

    Have a blessed Sunday, y’all, and thank those of you who embrace tolerance and diversity of what surely is an uncomfortable perspective for much of this audience. Matthew 10:34

  • Tina Villa

    Right. Necessities like $2 waffle irons. mashable.com/2011/11/25/walmart-waffle-iron-black-friday/

  • H. D. Schmidt

    Excellent article! America has become the nation of extremism for a better term, where the top gets richer and richer and further away from Almighty God, whereas the other extreme are more and more living in poverty and actually closer to that same Almighty God. And at a time when the politicians in DC get richer and richer also, with not having to abide by the laws they enact, that end up being harder and harder on the lower class. I think if George Washington were to rise he would weep bitterly, seing his nation in such decadence!

  • Red Rabbit

    “These are the very people who attend church regularly, express higher levels of belief in God, and are more likely to give a higher percentage of their income to those in need. Indeed, nearly every survey in religion shows that the poorer the American, the more likely they are to be both faithful and generous.”

    I’d say yours is a false analogy, especially since I’m very aware of very generous atheists. I’m also aware of greedy, materialistic christians, many of those who serve on the boards of companies that price goods out of the reach of the middle class and donate generously to Bible-pounding politicians who are perfectly happy to give perks to corporations at the expense of the public safety and middle class financial stability.

    If you want to speak about inequality and generosity, look at the nations that are organically more secular – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and other parts of western Europe and Japan and they have the highest standard of living the world has ever seen. They invest in education, health care, and other social safety nets that a lot of the christians, particularly the conservatives, in this country decry as evil and unAmerican. Meanwhile millions in this christian USA have to resort to putting begging jars up in 7-11′s to raise pennies to pay for a bone marrow transplant. That would be unheard of in Norway.

    While the Black Friday phenomenon is rooted in class inequality, there are plenty of christians who are benefitting from the onslaught and plenty of atheists who find it appalling.

  • Nixon is Lord

    You can tell that a lot of the people busting through the doors are poor, lower middle to working class because they’re brown and black. And obese if they are white. All of these are strongly correlated with lower economic status.
    Unfortunately, these are some of the rudest and loudest and fattest people around. I hope that their percentage of the US population shrinks, but since these people tend to have as much self-control with reproduction as they do with fast foods, they’re probably going to increase. Which means Butler-Bass’s Mainline churches will only continue to shrink both in relative and absolute terms.

    • Ellen

      Wow, judgmental much? Not a very Christian attitude…

  • Fran Ota

    Diana, I was right with you on this one. There are a couple of thoughts that popped up:
    – Canada is bringing in “Black Friday” sales, even though this is not our Thanksgiving. People will shop because, in general, our prices are always higher for comparable goods, even when our dollars are at par. So people who need to stretch their dollars will likely be out shopping because they can get things at a fair price. Needless to say the Province of Newfoundland is a depressed province in many ways.
    - there is a vast difference between need and want. The woman who went to buy shoes because she needed them personifies that. I am guessing most people who are shopping are looking for needed items. Those few of us who just want something that we don’t really need sometimes forget that.

  • CD

    The evening news reported that Walmart sold 1.8 MILLION towels last night and today. I doubt that people are giving 1.8 MILLION towels as gifts. They snapped up needed household items at a low cost. This is not greedy materialism.
    Thanks, Diana.

  • Susan wm

    This is a good article and the comments are wonderful! I did not participate in the shopping on Black Friday, and it is my personal choice to not shop Walmart, EVER, just because their overall practices of business, all year round. I do realize that that people in rural areas may not have the same choice I do. But one factor that goes against the success of protesting a day such as Black Friday, is everyone needs to participate to make it effective. Even without my going, the parking lots were full, and the CEO of Walmart reported record numbers of shoppers last night and today, around the country. But, I have to keep in mind that the purchases I make, and the values I place in those purchases are the only thing I truly need to be accountable for. I cannot be responsible for what others choose to do. I can be responsible for me.