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.

Mark Silva:

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.

Kathy Kattenburg:

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.

Ed Morrissey:

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.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, General, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DL says:

    GGggeeeeeezzzzz! You’d think it was a soccer game that they lost, or something important!

  2. odograph says:

    I’ve long written against stupid consumerism, and especially debt, so I am sympathetic to those who speak out.

    To hang it on one death, almost no deaths (if the guy had darted right) seems a little odd. Call it a “shopping accident” … how many died in “auto accidents” the same day? Were they heading for the stores?

    The best thing we can do for ourselves is to be shrewd in our shopping. Buy what we (really) need, and splurge on less expensive fun.

    We all spend for status displays as well, it is a universal in human societies, but I think we can be a little more self-aware. (If you buy an flashy watch on credit, or even with cash while your retirement account languishes, you might not be self-aware.)

    So sure … consumerism is a good topic.

    Though with respect to the economy we always come back to the saying that “frugality is a private virtue and a public vice.”

  3. markm says:

    We avoid Black Friday shopping like the plague

    Yesterday was my first time EVAR shopping on said day. It was busy but calm. Then last night I took my wife to Target to get a couple of items she needed for baking this morning. She said they had a pile of X-Box 360’s and if you bought one (at the regular price and without the fisticuffs) the store gave you an $80 Target gift card.

    I imagine as the economy continues to tank this holiday season these stories will be on the rise but I won’t be any part of it.

  4. odograph says:

    OK, not a “shopping accident”:

    A police statement said shortly after the store’s 5am opening time, shoppers “physically broke down the doors, knocking (the worker) to the ground”.

    A metal portion of the door was crumpled like an accordion.

    Definitely a crowd madness.

  5. Triumph says:

    We’ve got a big wall-hanging plasma HDTV, a Blu-Ray, a Wii, and various other goodies.

    On the Wii: I’ve read about the cool bowling game they have for it–but how is it for first person shooting games and for sports games like Madden?

    I’ve been sticking with the Xbox cause of Halo, Grand Theft Auto, and Madden, but the Wii does look pretty sweet!

  6. James Joyner says:

    On the Wii: I’ve read about the cool bowling game they have for it–but how is it for first person shooting games and for sports games like Madden?

    Very good, although my only point of reference is older games; I don’t have Xbox and whatnot. The shooting games are much better if you get the optional pistol attachment, which is fairly inexpensive. Madden is quite good and operates intuitively using the standard controller.

  7. Gippergal says:

    Thanks for tempering the quotes from leftists with someone like the Anchoress, who has beautiful insights.

    Rants about guns on occasions like that make me want to roll my eyes; it does, however, bring to mind another question: in a culture that downplays the importance of competition, do people get more testy? For instance, when all children get a compensation trophy; when battles to protect national security are minimalized by liberals as overcompensating ego machinations; when hunting is sneered at as barbaric; the further removed from meaningful competition people are, the more likely they are to display competitive motives in inappropriate arenas.

    I think the overfeminization of some aspects of culture suggest the unhealthy concept that real men, and real women, talk everything to death. The liberal illuminati suggest that photos of Gov. Palin hunting are one step removed from neanderthal. Sports is one of the only places left where competition can flourish, and even here, the experience is frequently marred by penalties for a quick touchdown celebration.

  8. Drew says:

    “Rather, it’s 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.”

    The nation has just concluded an election with the winner running on a classic populist theme: vote for me and I’ll take your no good rich neighbors money and give it to you.”

    And this Black Friday behavior surprises?

  9. odograph says:

    “The nation has just concluded an election with the winner running on a classic populist theme: vote for me and I’ll take your no good rich neighbors money and give it to you.”

    I’m more surprised that people take behaviors as old as mankind, and squint to see them as an aspect of momentary politics.

    Trot out Piker’s Blank Slate … human nature spans nations and centuries. The Anchoress did approach it from a human nature angle, which was good, but I think she might have been a tad optimistic when supposing that many out there were acting out of love.

    It might have been closer to “Nature red in tooth and claw.”

  10. Drew says:

    Who said ‘momentary?”

    Populist politics have been around forever, as have the long line of suckers who repeatedly fall for it’s allure. But that’s a separate topic.

    However, the observation stands. The same “me first” mentality that motivates stampedes for – its almost too incredible to write – X-Box’s and WII’s, also motivates that pull of the lever for the guy who promises ‘vote for me and I’ll give you something for free.’

    Don’t be surprised if the lady caught on tape joyously proclaiming ‘Obama’s going to pay for my mortgage and gas’ is also caught on tape at one of those bizarre 4 AM rushes.

    I gotta take my daughter shopping now……..

  11. Dodd says:

    Thank God for Amazon.com by means of which, for the umpteenth year in a row, I did all my shopping in a few hours in the comfort of my own home during their 100% frenzy-free BF Sale yesterday.

  12. odograph says:

    OK Drew, scratch “centuries” from my post and put in “millennia.” I don’t mean old, I mean really old.

    I’m sure “a chicken in every pot” is millennia old as well … but I don’t see it as quite the same emotion as xbox-lust.

  13. I was looking through the criminal laws of my state last night, and it appears (in Pennsylvania at least). The Walmart crowd could be prosecuted for second degree murder. Forcing your way into an occupied building not open to the public is second degree felony criminal trespass, which means any deaths it causes (even if those deaths are merely due to recklessness or negligence) are second degree murder.

    I would love to see the people in that crowd prosecuted. Sadly they’ll probably never even be identified, much less brought to justice.

  14. anjin-san says:

    So sure … consumerism is a good topic.

    Actually, its a great topic, and one that really needs to be explored in depth over the coming months and years.

    I grew up in one of the wealthiest communities in the country, but my childhood experiences were influenced by my parents depression & ww2 upbringing.

    We certainly wanted for nothing, but getting a new Beatles record was a big deal. A new TV? Huge, one of the biggest events of the year in any home.

    When I see children who have a tv, a computer and an xbox in each room and an ipod in every kids pocket, I wonder where we are going as a society. When you factor in half the kids being overweight, it is downright scary.

  15. hln says:

    Crowds of people are more crowds than people. I don’t think it has to do with pure materialism rather than simple focus on whatever the goal is – be that getting something, seeing something, being something, whatever.

  16. Eric says:

    Thanks for tempering the quotes from leftists with someone like the Anchoress, who has beautiful insights. [… et cetera]

    I was wondering when someone would blame the liberals. Gippergal doesn’t disappoint, as usual.

    Yeah, blame the liberals and “overfeminization” of society for America’s insane consumerism. Don’t blame the corporations who pump ad after ad into our faces every 15 seconds through every way possible. No, they’re not responsible at all. It’s those damn liberals overfeminizing us and wanting to make everyone a winner instead of just one person.

    Seriously, “Gippergal,” do you really believe that claptrap? Is outrageous consumerism really because of liberals? Or conservatives? Is this a subject that maybe transcends politics per se?

    Seriously, “overfeminization?” That’s your answer? Please.

  17. sam says:

    The definitive word on this Christmas shopping crapola was penned by the immortal Stan Freberg: Green Chri$tma$. Sample:

    SCROOGE: Christmas comes but once a year,
    So you better make hay while the snow is falling,
    That’s opportunity calling you!
    CHORUS: Rub your hands, December’s here,
    What a wonderful time to be Glad and merry!

    SCROOGE: Just so you’re mercenary too!
    CHORUS: Buy an ad and show all the toys,
    Show all the toys up on the shelf.

    SCROOGE: Just make sure that you get a plug,
    You get a plug, In for yourself!
    SCROOGE AND CHORUS:
    Christmas comes but once a year,
    So you better cash in,
    While the spirit lingers,
    It’s slipping through your fingers,
    Boy! Don’t you realize
    Christmas can be such a
    Monetary joy!

    CRATCHET: Well, I guess you fellows will never change.
    SCROOGE: Why should we? Christmas has two s’s in it, and they’re both dollar signs.
    CRATCHET: Yeah, but they weren’t there to begin with.
    SCROOGE: Eh?
    CRATCHET: The people keep hoping you’ll remember. But you never do.
    SCROOGE: Remember what?

    CRATCHET: Whose birthday we’re celebrating.
    SCROOGE: Well, ……. don’t get me wrong. The story of Christmas, in its simplicity, is a good thing – I’ll buy that. It’s just that we know a good thing when we see it.
    CRATCHET: But don’t you realize Christmas has a significance, a meaning.
    SCROOGE: A sales curve! Wake up, Cratchet, it’s later than you think.
    CRATCHET: I know, Mr. Scrooge, I know.
    CHORUS: On the first day of Christmas,
    The advertising’s there, with
    Newspaper ads,
    Billboards too,
    Business Christmas cards,
    And commercials on a pear tree. . .
    Jingles here, jingles there,
    Jingles all the way.
    Dashing through the snow,
    In a fifty-foot coup-e
    O’er the fields we go,
    Selling all the way. . .
    Deck the halls with advertising,
    What’s the use of compromising,
    Fa la la la la la la la la.

  18. sam says:

    One more thing. Folks ought to re-read (or read, if you haven’t) O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, the best Christmas story ever written. Nice antidote to all the bullshit we’re going to be subjected to until December 26.

  19. Kathy says:

    James,

    I just now saw this post, and I hope you’re still seeing these comments because I cannot find an email link for you. I have to tell you that the second blog you quote from, the one you have identified as being Libby Spencer’s, is actually mine. If you click the link, you’ll see that. I recognized the quote when I read it. I wrote that.