The mighty American marketing machine known as Christmas put on a brave front this weekend. Stores across the country opened up earlier than ever – some as early as 2:00 a.m. on Friday morning – and shoppers responded. Some consumers gave up their Thanksgiving Thursday altogether by using that day to stake their position on a sidewalk outside Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, or Sears. The rewards were high – those who were first in the store on Black Friday had the best shot at buying at deep, deep discounts. Flat screen HDTVs, which were otherwise priced at $1,000 minimum, were on sale for $300, but only on Black Friday and only to the earliest few into the store. (Image)
It’s a sign of the desperation of American retailers that they even have to market something called “Black Friday.” This used to be an obscure term used by retailers to identify the day after Thanksgiving, when shoppers came to the malls in droves to begin their Christmas shopping, thus guaranteeing retailers would be “in the black” (profitable) for the rest of the year. Most Americans don’t even know this, and are right to think there is something sinister about Black Friday, coming so soon as it does after another great American marketing campaign – Halloween. For every person shopping on Black Friday, two or three consumers stayed home, intimidated by the crowds, or disgusted with the commercial boosterism that has now overwhelmed Christmas. How, they wonder, did things get so out of hand?
If You Think It Didn’t Used to Be this Way
There has been a qualitative and quantitative deterioration in the Christmas shopping experience, but the shopping frenzy is not altogether new. Even in the midst of the Depression of the 1930s, families did their best to provide at least one toy for their children from Santa Claus. By the 1940’s, many of the top radio programs devoted one episode in December to a Christmas theme, and often this revolved around shopping for just the right gift at a department store. Department stores were places of glamour and sophistication, and families would often make a trip “downtown” to see the department store window displays as part of their own Christmas tradition. If you had children you couldn’t leave the store without visiting Santa Claus in his North Pole pavilion, located unsurprisingly right next to the toy section of the store.
Macy’s Department Store played a significant historical role in developing Christmas as a commercial enterprise. In 1927 the store organized its first Thanksgiving Day parade, from Harlem in New York City down to Macy’s store on Herald Square. The parade featured balloons of popular cartoon characters, marching bands, and at the end of it all Santa Claus, who then sat in court at Macy’s 34th street store all the way until Christmas, happy to listen to childrens’ requests for toys. In 1933 Mickey Mouse joined the parade as a balloon; Disney was always on the look-out for commercially lucrative tie-ins and advertising.
These traditions were solidified by the end of World War II, when parents began celebrating Christmas with a relief binge of gift buying. The 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street told the story of a man hired to be the store Santa Claus at R.H. Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square. The man went by the name of Kris Kringle and honestly believed he was Santa Claus, and of course the movie convinces you he is Santa Claus because he works real miracles, including managing to have R.H. Macy shake hands with his arch-rival at Gimbels.
Christmas binge buying became institutionalized during the 1950s, when the Baby Boomers were growing up in families with four or more children, each of which was entitled to several toys (not counting what they got from their grandparents). Older children were encouraged to buy gifts for their siblings or their parents, and all of this gift buying behavior was reinforced with commercials that aired on the new, popular medium of television. Retailers and manufacturers discovered that the right type of advertising could generate enormous sales, especially if you could create enough consumer interest that the item became a Christmas “must have” blockbuster.
All along, people were complaining that Christmas was being too commercialized, and that the religious meaning of Christmas was overshadowed by all this pressure to buy material goods. Interestingly, you don’t hear these complaints anymore. You do hear complaints about how the commercialism has become excessive and vulgarized, but you have to go to church on Christmas Day to hear anyone talk about the baby Jesus, because he has been completely marginalized in American culture, even on a holiday that carries his name.
Keeping Score on Sales
Not only is Christmas no longer a religious holiday, the whole purpose of Christmas has become the ritual of shopping for gifts. So important has gift-buying become, that the media are fascinated by scorecards and metrics that help Americans understand how well they are doing at their shopping obligations. Of course, there is the ubiquitous clock counting down the days left for shopping. This used to be measured as the days left until Christmas; now it is more purposefully described as “the number of shopping days left until Christmas.”
Retailers have managed to make Black Friday into a secular holiday, so that everyone can wait breathlessly to find out how many millions of people come out to the stores, and what the hot gifts are so far. Lost in all of this is the fact that Black Friday is not technically a holiday, and people are expected to go to work. Few do. Most people take the day after Thanksgiving off, and businesses (except for retailers) are manned by skeleton crews. Even schools now shut down on Black Friday.
Television and newspaper reporters run obligatory stories on the people who erect tents outside of stores, sleeping on the sidewalk for two or more nights so they can be first in line for the Black Friday sales. There are always live reports from television on the early openings, as hundreds of shoppers crowd into the store doorways. If, as has happened, someone gets trampled to death in the onrush, everyone gets to tsk tsk at the foolishness of these crowds, but it doesn’t stop people for participating next year.
It is also very typical for these reporters to remind us of the importance of Christmas. Christmas sales often account for 50% of a retailer’s annual business. Consumers generate nearly three-quarters of all economic growth in the US, so you can obviously see how important Christmas is to the economy overall. Millions of part time jobs are created in November and December, and not just in the retail industry (think how FedEx and UPS benefit from package shipments).
Then the report cards come in for the Black Friday weekend. First it is ShopperTrak to tell us how many millions of shoppers showed up, and what they bought. Then Visa and Mastercard tell us the dollar volume of purchases. Early the next week, retailers begin reporting their sales results, including the important “same-store” sales that strip out sales from stores opened in the past year, so we can get a consistent look at sales growth.
Will it be a good Christmas or a bad Christmas? Meaning, of course, will shoppers open their wallets to provide retailers a profitable December. These have become all-important questions for reporters, and not just those working on Wall Street. It is as if American families cannot have an enjoyable Christmas if retail sales are disappointing. Just as the birth of Jesus has been all but forgotten during Christmas, the mystery of Santa Claus has been relegated to a minor feature of the holiday. It isn’t even important whether you or your family have a Merry or a Happy Christmas – the only important thing is whether corporations have a profitable Christmas. This is the true meaning of Christmas.
Desperation For Profits Pervades Christmas
The ownership of Christmas by corporations – indeed the perversion of Christmas by corporations – seems to be running its course. We may be witnessing the implosion of Christmas as a marketing, retailing, and consumption phenomenon. What are the tell-tale signs?
1) Retailers have not only been forced to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving as a faux holiday, they have been progressively undermining Black Friday by moving their Christmas sales up several weeks earlier. No sooner are shoppers finished with Halloween in October, then the Christmas displays go up in stores and Christmas carols burst forth from the loudspeakers. Retailers are marketing pre-Black Friday sales which take place two weeks in advance, featuring fantastic discounts.
2) Because of this progressive blurring as to the beginning of the Christmas shopping season – much of which confuses most shoppers and dismays quite a few of them – the consumer has become trained to expect Christmas shopping to focus on sales and discounts. Interviews done with die-hard shoppers living in tents in front of stores before Black Friday indicate that people are going through this sacrifice in order to qualify for the fantastic sales, which are products given away below cost in the expectation the consumer will buy other full-priced products in the stores. Consumers are not falling for the bait and switch, and consequently two patterns emerge here. Consumers are caught up in a deflationary cycle waiting only for items on deep discount, and retailers are caught up in profit margin compression as they slash prices in order to keep their sales up.
3) For almost fifteen years now, Christmas in America has consisted of a diet of consumer items manufactured in China, with a little variety provided by Taiwanese or Indonesian goods. The entire China-America symbiotic relationship, which is that of manufacturer to consumer, is based on an American consumer who can buy goods only on credit. Wage growth in America has been stagnant for most of these fifteen years, in part because jobs have been shipped off to China where labor is much cheaper. Now that credit is no longer freely available to the American consumer, or even desired by the consumer, the China-America dynamic is weakening and may unravel altogether, taking away an important prop of Christmas as a consumer extravaganza.
4) Through the media obsession over Christmas sales, the American consumer is now focused on these data to guide them in their mood regarding the economy and the future. As the sales and profit metrics have steadily deteriorated year after year, the American mood has turned increasingly sour, reinforcing this cycle of poor economic performance and gloomy expectations.
5) Although we can never underestimate the bad taste inherent in much corporate advertising, it is possible that Christmas as presented by American media is dredging a trough of vulgarity that cannot get too much deeper. There is no religious meaning left to Christmas, and there is little childhood magic to be found in endless commercials and reruns of Charlie Brown cartoons or The Grinch That Stole Christmas. The attempt by retailers to elongate Christmas into a three-month autumnal spending splurge is failing, and this has only served to erode the Christmas “franchise.”
6) Christmas sales are increasingly being done on-line. This appeals to people anxious to avoid the crowds at stores, but it disadvantages retailers because on-line shoppers are far less prone to the impulse purchases that are an important component of Christmas sales. On-line shopping reduces the magic of Christmas even more, or at least the magic as presented by retailers. People who buy most of their gifts on-line are more likely to focus their buying on the people and the items they really intend to include in their Christmas shopping, and they also have more time to make Christmas meaningful for themselves and their family.
Replacing Consumerist Christmas
If consumerist Christmas is imploding, what replaces it? Does anything need to? This year there has been a movement afoot on the internet to sign people up who refuse to buy anything on Black Friday, in protest to the consumer juggernaut that retailers and the media have created. This movement has some appeal to the 80% – 85% of American consumers who are facing tight economic times; the rest of America can still afford to shop at Tiffany’s, and the luxury side of Christmas will always do well as long as Ben Bernanke can keep propping up the stock market. Everybody else, however, may make something useful and meaningful out of necessity, by turning Christmas into a family event that does not depend on a glut of gifts to be fun or successful. In many families there is already an agreement that at big holiday parties, featuring grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so forth, the adults do not give each other gifts, or if they do, the gifts are limited to nominal amounts of $5 or less. This may be why the dollar stores continue to do well at Christmas.
It is going to take a lot more of this attitude to overthrow the massive presence of corporate self-interest that has overtaken and distorted Christmas, but the foundations are already there in consumer behavior. Consumers are ignoring the advertising blandishments in ways that would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago. They are seeking out bargains, and when they are not in the stores, they are seeking out something intangible, something that will make Christmas meaningful again without the gifts, the debt, the stress, the impossible expectations, the competition for material goods, and the sheer waste of it all.
What they are seeking is unclear. It may be Christ, or it may be the spirit and teaching of Christ as exemplified in drives to feed and shelter the homeless. It may be a connection to family that is hard enough to achieve in a non-holiday season, much less during the tribulations of Christmas. Whatever it is, it is not Jesus as Shopaholic, and it is increasingly unlike the Christmas that has been packaged for us by corporations that have owned the holiday for so long they have stripped it completely of its meaning and mystery.
First published at The Agonist