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Black Friday Post Mortem: Business as Usual or End of Capitalism?

Raz Godelnik headshotWords by Raz Godelnik
Leadership & Transparency
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Black Friday is over. Cyber Monday is over. Even Small Business Saturday is behind us. It’s time to take a deep breath and look at the numbers, starting with Black Friday, which wasn’t that successful this year: According to ShopperTalk, in-store sales decreased 10.4 percent over Black Friday weekend (Nov. 26-29) compared to last year.

If you’re not a fan of Black Friday this is good news, right? After all, Black Friday is probably the best reflection of an unsustainable culture of over-consumption, contributing to many of the problems we face. Therefore, weaker sales numbers on Black Friday could indicate that this unsustainable culture is losing steam, which is a step in the right direction.

But before you run to open a local, organic bottle of champagne, you need to ask yourself if there is a real reason for celebration. Have Americans really had enough of Black Friday madness? Well, it’s complicated.

While Black Friday sales were somewhat disappointing for retailers, Cyber Monday seemed to compensate for it: According to Adobe's Digital Index, total online sales on Cyber Monday rose 16 percent from last year to $3.07 billion. Overall, “sales for the five-day period starting on Thanksgiving totaled $11.11 billion, 2.4 percent more than the expected $10.85 billion and 17 percent more than last year,“ Adobe reported.

These figures apparently show a shift from shopping in brick-and-mortar stores to shopping online, especially on mobile phones, which reached a new record - $800 million in spending in the five-day period. In addition they might reflect changes not just in the way consumers shop, but also in their expectations – consumers “might be holding out for even better deals as the season progressed,” as Matthew Shay, the National Retail Federation’s president and chief executive, explains. Last not least, it could be that year-round deals cause consumers to feel that almost every day is a Black Friday, resulting in what the New York Times described as sales fatigue.

So, does it matter at all that Black Friday’s sales have gone down, if Cyber Monday’s sales have gone up and the overall retail sales this holiday season are expected to be up by about 3.5 percent compared to last year? Isn’t this, at the end of the day, nothing but business as usual?

The first answer that comes in mind is yes – this is business as usual. After all, the shopping frenzy of the holiday season hasn’t changed much, even with the demise of Black Friday. As Gerald Storch, CEO of the Hudson’s Bay Co., which owns Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, puts it: “Christmas always comes, and people have to shop. They will be back.” In addition, while a shift toward online shopping could actually reduce the carbon footprint of shopping, the fact that it takes off some of the friction involved in traditional shopping like the need to spend time in very crowded brick-and-mortar stores could end up in increasing consumption, and thus erode the somewhat positive impact online retailing could have on the environment.

Yet, on a second thought, Black Friday is a symbolic image of everything that is wrong about capitalism, and symbols do matter -- if Black Friday becomes weaker, maybe what it represents also becomes weaker. As sociologist Fred Polak wrote in his book “The Image of the Future”:

“The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.”

In other words, the decay of Black Friday, the ultimate image of unsustainable capitalism, could possibly lead eventually to the decline of the same type of capitalism it represents. It’s true that this reasoning may not go hand-in-hand with more factual reasons other thinkers like Paul Mason or Jeremy Rifkin give for the decline of capitalism as we know it, not to mention that the holiday season shopping orgy itself isn’t going away, but perception matters as much as the facts.

This also has to do with the principle of social proof, which describes our tendency to conform to social norms, or in other words: We tend to do what everyone else does. As Dan Ariely and Wendy De La Rosa explain: “Black Friday has become the 'social norm.' Because so many people are spending, it becomes socially acceptable for one individual to spend. It’s the classic 'everyone is doing it' excuse.”

While Ariely and De La Rosa contextualize this idea that Black Friday has become a social norm in terms of having impact on people on that day only (“That day, for many American households, might be serving as a spending cheat day. Over the years it has becomes socially acceptable to spend a substantial amount on this day," they write), I would take it one step further and suggest that Black Friday may also help excessive consumption become an acceptable social norm in general. Therefore, if Black Friday is gone and we don’t see “herds of people throwing their dignity and morals away just for that last flatscreen TV on sale and in stock," people may see over-consumption differently and won’t accept it as an appropriate behavior. After all, as Robert Cialdini wrote: “Persuasion can be extremely effective when it comes from peers.”

While I doubt if any of the leaders debating our future in Paris has been paying attention to the decline in Black Friday sales, this trend could become an effective ally for policy makers in creating a more sustainable world, or at least in helping us imagining one.

Image credit: Flickr/Clotee Allochuku

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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