Black Friday has both its origins and its growth in our consumer-driven culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we have to remember that our choices as consumers have far-reaching effects on others.
Over the last decade, consumers have decided that they don’t want to wait until Thanksgiving is over to start holiday shopping. This year, Toys-“R”-Us, Wal-Mart, Sears and K-Mart will open their doors at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, while Target will allow shoppers in at 9:00 p.m.
Sound ridiculous? Well, retail giants are only able to rip people away from their families on Thanksgiving evening because it works. This phenomenon is consumer-driven. The problem is not that the retailers employ this strategy, but that it works. And every year, it starts earlier and becomes even busier than before.
Being a flaming anti-consumerist, it irks me to hear that people will shop on Thanksgiving before they even have time to enjoy the inevitable food coma. But this column isn’t about the problems I have with American materialism or conspicuous consumption. What concerns me most about these insanely early sales is the effect on retail workers.
With stores opening so early, employees will barely have time to wrap up their leftovers before their shifts begin. Shopping on Thanksgiving is completely voluntary — working isn’t quite the same. Protests have already begun regarding these more demanding schedules. An online petition asking Target, Wal-Mart and other retailers to give employees all of Thanksgiving off has gathered more than 340,000 signatures.
As encouraging as that is, a store like Wal-Mart doesn’t respond to signatures — it responds to money.
People often forget that when they spend money, they are essentially voting. Buying a product expresses your approval of that product, and buying it from a certain store confers your agreement with that store. So long as you keep spending money there, that company will stay in business and will generate profit. Wal-Mart is notorious for mistreating employees, selling imported goods and running small businesses out of town. But people love the low prices, so they keep the convenience conglomerate in business.
Black Friday is the epitome of the United States’ moral failure: Selfishness is now a virtue in American society. Ignore the fact that hundreds of female employees have filed lawsuits against Wal-Mart for discrimination. Ignore the fact that employees all over the country will have to leave their families on a national holiday. And ignore the fact that retail giants rake in billions in profits but pay their employees a wage that’s barely livable. The American consumer benefits, so it’s all good.
I’m not trying to rally against capitalism here. I’m making a point about work in America. There are major injustices committed against our neighbors regularly that we have the power to stop. Suppose a few million people who were going to shop at Wal-Mart on Black Friday refused, as a way of standing in solidarity with the striking employees. Their business loss would be significant. Now imagine that lasts for months. Wal-Mart would begin labor negotiations and the problems of poor working conditions and low pay could be resolved. As consumers in this system, we hold the power. It will force us to sacrifice: Personally, my family is strapped for cash and we need to stretch things as far as we can.
Regardless, we never have and never will shop at a Wal-Mart. We refuse to support a business that does what they do. It hurts us, but we make that sacrifice in the hope of influencing a change.
As consumers, we need to understand what spending our money means. Our purchases will decide when people work, how much they get paid and whether or not they deserve equal treatment because of their gender.
I propose something very simple: if you want to help retail workers all over the country, then don’t go shopping at 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Send a message to businesses that they can’t do this to their employees. Go and enjoy the deals if you’d like, but just remember that at one point, you’ll be at a register looking into the eyes of a person who had to leave Thanksgiving dinner early just to ring you up. Personally, I would rather stay home, eat some pumpkin pie and watch more football.
James Brennan can be reached at email@example.com.