Thursday, November 24, 2011

Black Friday at the Church of Stop Shopping

On the eve of the day known, depending on where your head's at, as Black Friday or Buy Nothing Day, and heading into a season that tries super hard to make shopping feel like a warm, sparkly, snow-dusted hug, I'm going to take a few loose ends that have been kicking around my brain, weave them into a scarf of a blog entry and give it to you as a gift.

I've never been a huge fan of shopping, with the exception of groceries, which I love beyond reason.  I do like looking at stuff, but somehow poking around with the intention of buying things is a special ring of my personal hell. 

Which is why the very concept of Black Friday makes my head spin. For a girl who likes to take late night walks because I can pretend there's no one else in the city, being jammed  into aisles with dozens of other people is positively claustrophobic.  I dislike being stuck in line with those radically inefficient types who sigh and shuffle and hurrumph at how long it's taking but begin the inevitably long, arduous search for their wallet only when they hear their total.  I dislike cranky, snippy people. People in lines are cranky and snippy. I dislike being cranky and snippy. I become cranky and snippy. Enough.  The particulars aren't important, but you get the idea.  I'm petty and precious and sad, and I can't hack it in the fluorescent lit jungle of Retail Land.  But actively seeking this experience on a day when you're guaranteed the biggest, most aggressive, adrenalized crowds of the year?  How does anyone find that appealing?

Well, sales, stupid. Crazy sales intended to satisfy the already crazy and induce a sense of urgency and madness in those not yet over the edge.  And in a bad economy, the siren song of the discount flat screen gets turned up to eleven.

This is old news, but it's worth examining this year maybe more than others because of...yes, Occupy.  I realize I'm probably starting to sound like an Occupy zealot, but bear with me here.

Maybe the most successful, concrete outcome of the movement so far was Bank Transfer Day, a direct action in which customers were encouraged to close accounts with corporate banks and move their money to credit unions and local institutions.  It was hugely successful, with as many people joining credit unions in a single month as did the same number over the course of the entire previous year.  It was easy logic to follow even for the apolitical: Big banks penalize you a lot and have crappy customer service. Take your business to a company that treats you better.  Black Friday has the potential to be another moment like that (although I'm not holding my breath).

Fans of Adbusters Magazine, a Canadian anti-corporate magazine instrumental in putting out the initial clarion call to occupy Wall Street, have long celebrated the day after Thanksgiving as Buy Nothing Day.  It's not a particularly catchy name, but the premise is simple:  Don't spend money on Black Friday.  Because what was initially a big shopping day just because a lot of people had the day off has now become a kind of disgusting testament to impotent consumerism.  Huge chains ring the bell and we come running, drooling over their table saws and flat screens. And in post-9/11, "the most patriotic thing you can do is go shopping" world, we've been made to understand that if we don't spend enough money on Black Friday, well, I guess we don't want the economy to rebound.  But guess what, gang?  Ain't nobody helping the economy by going further into credit card debt in the service of compulsory big-ticket purchases.

There'll be some that argue that in a bad economy, the sales just make it the only time they can buy without going into debt for it, but I suspect they'd be hard-pressed to give a really good reason that they needed to buy most of that stuff in the first place.  If people are actually getting poorer and are serious about turning their financial situations around, "Because I want it" can't be a good enough reason anymore.

So yeah, Occupy and Black Friday.  If a really significant number of people, say the number of people who've participated in any way in the Occupy movement, also participated in Buy Nothing Day instead of Black Friday, or at the very least, put their money into small businesses instead of Walmart-type (or Sears-type, or Best Buy-type) juggernauts, it would be a pretty clear and serious message that we, the general public aren't just kidding around.  We're living self-imposed austerity measures and we're not interested in excuses from corporations and government about why they're not.  Market analysts would freak.  The media would be hard-pressed to spin it to seem like a bunch of disgruntled hippies in trees.  If we, and by we I mean the general public expect to be listened to and taken seriously by the powers that be, speechifying and marching will only get us so far.  Every now and then we're going to have to make clear, declaratory statements in the unmistakable language of commerce.  When gas prices rose in the 70's, people bought less gas.  When they went up last decade, people grumbled and kept on pumping.  With a popular populist movement gathering momentum on the ground, we have a rare opportunity to make small sacrifices on the part of individuals resonate with the strength of that network and it would be a shame to squander it.

But as we speak, people I know who probably consider themselves somewhat or quite progressive are entering stores in the thrall of Midnight Madness, camping out to go shopping for the silly irony of it.  I don't want everyone to turn into a bunch of seemingly humorless ideologues like me, but man, if everyone could chip in a little smidgen of straight-faced resolve it'd go an awfully long way.

End Part the First.

Part II: While We're Talking About Me Being Humorless...

I recently learned how to make shoes, which was a fascinating exercise and something I plan to do more of. If you have even the slightest inclination toward any kind of DIY endeavor and you haven't been to, do it.  Do it now.  Even if it means you'll stop reading this post.  I'm about to go full-on Andy Rooney here. (rest his soul)

The inspiration for making shoes, outside of my penchant for taking up unlikely hobbies just to see if I can, was TOMS (see picture).  Because they look easy to make. And they are. And they annoy the bejeezus out of me.

Those of you who were kids in the 90's may recall similar canvas shoes that sold at Ames and Bradlees and other discount retailers (these may be regional, but anyway...the precursors to the modern big-box) for under $5.  They were ugly and smelled of rubber and made in China, but they were cheap, so there they were.

TOMS are also ugly and made in China, but for every pair you purchase, the company donates a pair to a poor child somewhere in the world.  Corporate philanthropy is admirable and should be encouraged, right?  Right.  But that's not what's happening here.

These shoes cost about $5 to make and sell for about $40.  There's several ways to look at this. Here's two:  Either the markup is 800% on the pair you bought and the company gives one away for free or the markup per pair is 400%, comparable to other similar shoes (retailing for $20) and you're buying one for yourself and one for a poor child somewhere in the world and the company profits on both and gives zero away.  Neither scenario is nearly as warm and fuzzy as the "Chief Shoe Giver" seems to think.

Forgive me if I'm coming off as a real killjoy here, but I can only hope that the CSG is just grossly naive as opposed to so baldly cynical as to exploit philanthropy to shill for his stupid product.  From what I've read, the former seems to be true, but it's so hard to believe, because it means he's just sooo naive.

For starters there's the whole "is it really a donation question," and we can follow that quickly with the made in China part.  There are now operations in Argentina and Ethiopia as well, but it's difficult not to see those as a nod to critics of the Chinese operation.

And then there's the fact that the corporate web page has a header for "Our Movement."  It feels a little slimy for a for-profit entity whose marketing strategy consists almost entirely of aping an NGO to take it one further and self-describe in a way that muddies the waters further.  Do I think anyone but a real lazy dope is going to be confused about whether this is a charity or a money-making operation?  Probably not, but there sure are a lot of lazy dopes out there when it comes to consumerism and armchair activism. (See the first million words of the this post).

End Part the Second.

Phew.  Probably should have just made two posts, but like I said, I was weaving a gigantic, ill-fitting scarf of anti-consumerist threads (Wait, did I say that?  Who remembers?). There.  Doesn't that just feel like a warm, sparkly, snow-dusted hug?


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