At BSR a few weeks ago I was excited to have Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn directly answer my question “Is promoting Black Friday midnight sales contrary to social responsibility?” His answer was pretty straightforward: No, it’s not irresponsible, it’s responding to what the market wants. Best Buy’s competitors do it, people want it, and it’s a part of modern culture that a lot of people look forward to.
Additionally, Dunn mentioned that he himself would be at a local Best Buy store at midnight, in the parking lot, directing traffic and working to pep up the crowd. As long as we’re concerned about employee welfare and the desire for some employees to be home with their families, you can’t call the man a hypocrite.
With last Friday’s sales apparently the best in history, it’s hard to argue that Black Friday is not an important economic event. Perhaps begrudgingly to many of us, it’s also an important cultural event – satisfying a certain core instinct to hunt and gather treasure and gain the satisfaction that comes with finding a bargain.
Stephanie Clifford of the New York Times even implied last week (perhaps unintentionally) that shunning Black Friday might be a tad elitist. She argued that the days following Thanksgiving are the best opportunity all year for folks of modest income to meet their annual needs and that those sitting at home enjoying themselves on Friday were more likely to be higher income individuals. Black Friday may be unpleasant in many ways, but it’s a critical for millions of Americans. Granted, the definition of “critical” could depend on how badly you actually need that new TV.
Still, there are people like me who would rather be waterboarded than set foot in a shopping mall at any time close to the holidays for preservation of our own sanity. And there are others who for many reasons (environmental, fiscal, cultural) shun the annual consumer extravaganza and hope to shut it down as a matter of principal (see Raz Godelnik’s report on Target from last week).
Regardless of one’s personal enjoyment of shopping, there are legitimate reasons to raise concerns about the mass consumption of material goods which often borders on the irrational. People going into debt to purchase TVs they may not really need and replacing other forms of recreation with shopping has potentially dire economic consequences. It’s not unlike the frenzy of overzealous home buying of recent times. A huge chunk of our economy has become totally dependent on ever increasing consumption of physical material “stuff”. This at a time when resource scarcity has already started leading to wars and innumerable environmental problems.
But should those of us concerned with the planet’s ability to sustain us really be so upset at the phenomenon unto itself? If hunting for treasure is a natural human drive is it right to criticize it? If big box retailers have done a great job capitalizing on this phenomenon then why blame them? Perhaps the real problem is that alternatives to standard mass consumption have yet to be marketed to the mainstream.
A few are trying:
American Express has been sponsoring, for the second year running, an “event” called Small Business Saturday. With almost 3 million facebook “likes” and mostly positive reports (see a google news search here) it’s obvious the concept has already gained momentum to the point where countless smaller merchants, particularly in older downtown areas are taking notice and reaping rewards.
The Nature Conservancy has taken things to another level this year as well by promoting a concept earlier this week called “green gift monday” … the idea, obviously, is to buy something ecologically sound on the Monday after thanksgiving. It’s another great idea – rewarding the makers of thoughtful products helps build a more conscious, “greener” economy. So far the event doesn’t seem to have had the same resonance as Small Business Saturday, but you have to start somewhere.
Even “Cyber Monday” which is promoted by many online retailers may have some unintentional green effects. Shopping online is generally more resource efficient than driving to the mall.
Then of course, there’s the infamous “Buy Nothing Day“. A statement of protest originally promoted by AdBusters, Buy Nothing Day seeks to turn the very idea of consumerism on its head – challenging people to re-think their compulsion to shop. Although it’s not exactly mainstream (yet) encouraging deeper thinking about how our economy and culture function is never a bad thing.
With headlines around the country still dominated by Black Friday this time of year, it’s obvious these alternative marketing efforts have a way to go. However, the sooner other concepts enter the consumer consciousness the sooner our economy at large can start evolving in a more sustainably minded direction.
(image source - stumble upon)