I assumed (wrongly, perhaps) that in the era of “everything analytics” brought to you by the “big data” revolution, anecdotal accounts of Black Friday in America would eventually be passé. 24 hours later, I expected to see definitive sales numbers. Instead, I was greeted by unenthusiastic accounts of “muted” consumers.
For social critics like myself, the Saturday after Black Friday is a time to reflect on America’s consumption addiction, which famously manifests in fist fights around the country, particularly at big box retailers offering deep discounts on everything from (foreign made) electronics to the latest (foreign made) toys. More than a century on from The Civil War, and decades before the culture wars, Americans tacitly agreed that the day after the nation’s communal feast should be reserved for ceremonial, hand-to-hand combat in honor of the god Materialism. The onset of mutually agreed hostilities typically commences pre-dawn, and once the battle is joined, no holds are barred and police intervention is generally limited. It’s conceptually similar to “The Purge,” only with prizes for the survivors.
Humor aside, Black Friday battles also represent globalization come full circle. The middle-class accepted a Faustian bargain: Your good-paying factory jobs for ever cheaper goods. Now, scores of breadwinners (a sad misnomer) from lower-income households who, in another era, might’ve made a decent living in the manufacturing sector, fight each other for the best deals on goods manufactured overseas, in part because Christmas depends on it. Winning on Black Friday might be the difference between a new food processor and the toys under the tree a month from now, or a new food processor or the toys.
This year was supposed to mark a return to the “good old days,” where that most assuredly doesn’t mean well-paid middle-class families on idyllic family shopping trips under light snowfall and the warm glow of street lamps on bustling, but not chaotic, city sidewalks. But rather the “good old days” of long, anxious lines pregnant with pent-up middle-class rage ready to stampede, risking life and limb for a bounty of molded plastic, circuit boards and apparel made by slave labor in countries most Americans can’t pronounce, let alone identify on an unmarked map.
No such luck, though. “Crowds were thin in the late morning at Connecticut’s Stamford Town Center mall, with few shoppers at Kay Jewelers and just a small line at Forever 21,” a forlorn account penned by Bloomberg’s Brendan Case, Jeannette Neumann and Olivia Rockeman read. “A couple at a Walmart supercenter near Dallas reveled in the lack of crowds as they bought presents for their grandchildren.”
To be sure, there were scattered accounts which told of a more familiar (read: frenzied) scene across the country, but by and large, the insanity that once served as fodder for cable news networks and, later, Black Friday montages on YouTube, seemed missing. USA Today published a nostalgic piece called “Old Black Friday images show fights, camping, long lines.” “Just a few years ago, the words ‘Black Friday’ would conjure images of frenzied shoppers packed into stores like sardines and hunting for the best bargains,” Camille Fine wrote. “But the traditional kickoff to holiday shopping season now looks starkly different.”
Part of the story is the shift to online shopping, hastened by the pandemic. But according to Adobe Analytics, online sales on Black Friday rose just ~2% from last year. If inflation is 8% and online sales rise 2%, the read-through for real sales seems straightforwardly lackluster. When considered in conjunction with the pervasiveness of accounts like that penned by Bloomberg’s Case, Neumann and Rockeman, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that between generationally high inflation and a generalized sense of economic angst, Americans weren’t in fighting spirits this year.
In a testament to the impact of higher prices, there were sporadic reports of heavily-trafficked discounters and healthy crowds at high-end retailers, set against virtually no traffic in the “middle.” That’s a manifestation of “K-shaped” inflation. But whereas crowds used to be the rule, they’re now the exception. Or so it seemed.
There were some pseudo-laments for another year spent waiting for the return of insanity which America’s paper of record unironically characterized as the opposite. “After two pandemic holiday seasons… retailers were hoping that this year would be a return to sanity,” Jordyn Holman and Karen Weise wrote for The New York Times. “But just as it started to appear that families and stores could pull out their old playbooks, along came near-record inflation and the war in Ukraine, only increasing general unease about the state of the world.”
All of this naturally raises questions about the remainder of the holiday shopping season in the world’s largest economy (and beyond).
“Images of Black Friday’s bygone era show mayhem in crammed stores, parking lot fights and tents lined up with crowds of people. Do you miss it?” USA Today’s Fine wondered. Bloomberg, apparently reporting live from a deserted scene, noted that at one San Francisco galleria, “there was no line for the mall’s Santa Claus.”
A few hours before Americans ventured out on Friday, Rabobank’s Michael Every wrote that, “The Marxist irony today is that the blacker the Friday, the happier the financial markets will be.” “Economic collapse and consumers crumbling are what is required to ensure that monetary policy does what monetary policy needs to do in order to artificially jack asset prices higher again,” he added. “I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not.”