Black Friday Madness Madness
Two people were killed by gunplay at a California Toys R Us yesterday, joining the trampled Wal-Mart worker in New York. Naturally, this is bringing out condemnations of America’s crazy appetite for stuff.
Lay a little blame at the feet of the government, for exhorting Americans to spend more money and shake off that recession gripping the nation. Lay some blame on the media, for stoking the hype surrounding one day of retailing which is, in fact, nothing more than the first of 28 shopping days left until Christmas, with cable news hawking footage of ravenous shoppers storming the doors of stores opening at 4 am.
And in Palm Desert, California, where police say an argument preceded the shooting at a Toys “R” Us, lay some blame on a gun-happy culture which encourages the resolution of simple domestic disputes with the pulling of a trigger.
But I’ve been thinking (being the analytical, rather than the pragmatic, sort) that there is deeper meaning behind this kind of unhinged response to coveted big-ticket “stuff” that normally costs thousands of dollars and for one day only can be had for only a few hundred. People have such a desperate need to have what everyone else has (or what they imagine everyone else has); that seems to be how we measure psychic belonging and emotional safety in our society.
Nor is it just the bleeding heart lefties. The Anchoress:
Materialism CAN corrupt the soul, of course – as can capitalism untempered by compassion – but as I’ve matured, I’ve come to reject the easy and cynical course that finds “America” and its values to be at the core of every negative situation I encounter. Instead, I have decided to think of the aggression of the battling shoppers to be rooted in vulnerability. They’ve decided they want to purchase a particular item for someone they love. Perhaps this is how they express love. Perhaps they believe, subconsciously, that this is the only way they can be loved back. Perhaps this is a budgeted item and the only way they can afford to purchase it is at a heavily reduced price and – because they love – they’re willing to fight for it.
Looked at in this way, the “crassness” of all of this consumer excess seems less clear, and one finds oneself – as one does all too often, if one is paying attention – in the middle of yet another Holy Mystery. Love is the highest human aspiration, but when it lacks anchoring in something bigger than itself, it tends to drift a bit and take on some detritus (doubt, hurt, anger, self-hate) that gets into the workings and distorts the navigation, a little; in that case, suddenly love can lead us away from, and not toward, our best selves.
Hundreds of people trampled others to death so that they could get to cheap retail goods the fastest — presumably to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
At some point, that horrible irony should cause people to pause and think about what motivates them in this holiday season. Everyone likes a good deal, but few of us would choose to die for one — and therefore we shouldn’t want to kill for one, either. Retailers won’t like to hear this, but maybe we need to spend a little less and recover our humanity just a little more.
Or, maybe this was just a crowd that got out of hand?
The Toys “R” Us incident, apparently, was not a dispute over the last Tickle Me Elmo. LAT:
The shooting occurred in a crowded toy store on the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, but authorities say it wasn’t related to the bargain-hunting frenzy. […] Riverside County sheriff’s Sgt. Dennis Gutierrez said the fight was not over a toy and that handguns were found by the men’s bodies. He refused to say whether the shooting was gang-related.
That’s police-speak for “It was gang related.”
(Ironic aside: Yesterday’s NYT featured a Stephen Roach op-ed hailing the end of the consumer-driven economy.)
Look, I like material possessions and bargains as much as the next guy. We’ve got a big wall-hanging plasma HDTV, a Blu-Ray, a Wii, and various other goodies. We shop online when we can to avoid the aggravation but we’re “members” at Costco and shop there with some frequency, putting up with the hordes in order to get good deals; indeed, we bought the TV there. I tend to wait for sales to buy clothes and have been known to go to T.J. Maxx and outlet malls to look for good deals.
We avoid Black Friday shopping like the plague, though, unwilling to fight like animals to save a few bucks. I don’t understand the mentality of people who are willing to line up outside a Big Box Store at 4 a.m. in order to scramble over cut-price merchandise. Even when I was young and thin of wallet, that just didn’t appeal to me. Lots of people, though, find the experience thrilling. Reasonably affluent people who could afford to pay the extra $19.99 for the item make a sport of shopping.
Retailers have clearly determined over the years that hype is a way of attracting customers. Otherwise, why force people to get up at the crack of dawn to get good deals? Why not just open the damn store at 9 a.m., like usual?
The problem with hype and frenzy, though, is that it sometimes gets out of control. More people than expected show up, the crowds are too big, and the stocks are too low to accomodate them. Madness ensues. People hopped up on adrenaline do dumb things, especially in the anonymity of crowds. Store management has a duty to be aware of this — that’s doubly so for giant enterprises like Wal-Mart, which have huge amounts of institutional experience to draw from — and take appropriate precautions.
I don’t let society totally off the hook, though. The problem, however, isn’t so much eagerness to acquire crap at a good price as a solipsistic disregard for one’s fellow man. Anyone who’s been in an airport, a movie theater, or a restaurant — much less driven their car — with any frequency knows that people can be incredibly rude without the lure of cheap crap. Far too many people seemingly have no clue that there are other people in the world; certainly, they don’t care. Unfortunately, a small number of such people can ruin the experience for everyone else.