Forget Thanksgiving. What happened to Black Friday?

At least two things that can happen when you hold a sale.

  1. Price discrimination: From each according to his willingness to pay, to the store according to its willingness to take money. The idea behind a sale is to sell to only those customers who would not have bought otherwise. Sorry, sales are not held to “honor veterans” or “help customers stretch their dollars”. Sales exist because stores think they will make more money by holding the sale than by not.
  2. Discounts for people who would have bought anyway: A retailer’s worst nightmare is that your TV will stop working in the days leading up to a sale on the TV you would have otherwise paid full price for. You get the heavily discounted price that was intended only for customers who would not have bought otherwise.

Retailers have to weigh the dollar impact of 1 and 2 to determine whether a sale is worth holding and how much to discount. Black Friday was a perfect time to hold a sale because

  • It was sort of a secret rather than an event. Only real cheapskates knew about it. I remember telling people I was going to head out early on Black Friday and get a “Huh?!” as if I had said something racially tinged.
  • It was inconvenient. Only those people who really valued their money dearly would bother to drive long hours the morning after a monstrous meal when the rest of their family slumbered.

These were great ways to discriminate, and it enabled retailers to offer genuine discounts to the cheapskates who would not have otherwise bought and avoid the people who would have bought anyway taking advantage of their sales.

Because internet, that has all changed. News articles used to have to explain the etymology of Black Friday. Explaining what Black Friday is in 2013 would be like explaining in a political article that the United States has a president.

Further, Black Friday has become convenient. Kohl’s and Best Buy launched Black Friday pricing a couple of days ago. Amazon has been running Black Friday specials for two weeks. Sears.com pricing came online yesterday. You can do your Black Friday shopping without making it to Friday alive. This is not an environment conducive to good price discrimination. Regular people know about Black Friday and are able to participate, so we see pricing that is no better than other sales during the year. This doesn’t mean you can’t save on Black Friday. It’s just that you shouldn’t expect to save more than you would have on Labor Day.

That’s right. The problem is that Black Friday has become too commercialized. This makes me sad.

A number of people this year seem instead to be mourning Thanksgiving due to some retailers opening today. I can’t help but notice though that many of my Facebook friends who lodge these complaints were a few years ago implying that Thanksgiving was a celebration of the slaughter of millions of Native Americans. I don’t claim to know which interpretation holds more true for Thanksgiving, but it makes me nostalgic for the relative moral simplicity of Black Friday.

It’s hard to even argue that Thanksgiving is less consumerist than Black Friday. This year’s peons paeans (Thank you, LWA. Damn you, autocorrect?) to Thanksgiving make it sound like it has always been about family. Before it became a political issue though, Thanksgiving was about watching a bunch of corporate-sponsored floats in the Macy’s Parade, literally consuming 4500 Calories per person, and then watching heavily subsidized multimillionaires inflict permanent brain damage upon one another for the public’s amusement. I’ll pass on the turkey and take the humble authenticity of Black Friday.

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30 thoughts on “Forget Thanksgiving. What happened to Black Friday?

  1. IIRC Thanksgiving wasn’t declared a national Holiday until the 1930s. It was always kind of celebrated but it was made official including tipping off Holidays Sales tomorrow as a kind economic stimulus to help get the US out of the Great Depression.

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  2. Black Friday is, like so many other things in life, a prisoner’s dilemma. The best thing for each individual firm is to be the only one having a sale on Friday, but competition pushes the other firms to have sales too. Then they compete by pushing the start of the sale back further and further, until everyone’s working on Thanksgiving and no better off than if they all agreed to close that day and start on Friday. (That would be an illegal form of collusion, of course.)

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  3. The idea behind a sale is to sell to only those customers who would not have bought otherwise. … Sales exist because stores think they will make more money by holding the sale than by not.

    Not true. At least in the narrow sense. Walmart used to regularly have “red light” sales on desirable items and not necessarily to make money on that particular item, but rather to instill a belief in shoppers that walmart was a place worth coming back to. A sale can be, and I think in fact often is (Black Friday sale is an example), justified as establishing long-term customer loyalty.

    Discounts for people who would have bought anyway: A retailer’s worst nightmare is that your TV will stop working in the days leading up to a sale on the TV you would have otherwise paid full price for. You get the heavily discounted price that was intended only for customers who would not have bought otherwise.

    That only makes sense if the sale is intended to attract only those who wouldn’t have bought either a) slow-moving items or b) high (or high-enough) volume items sold at a short term reductions in profit on the expectation of long-term gains in profit.

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    • Not true. At least in the narrow sense.

      Yes, you’re right. There’s also the possibility that you might get someone in the door to buy other things they might not have. I chose to keep it simple in the original post by presenting only one justification. Cataloguing all the possible reasons for holding a sale would probably require its own post, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t be confident in the completeness of my list.

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      • I chose to keep it simple in the original post by presenting only one justification.

        Sure. And in that case, you didn’t use the word “only” in a way to make your point. Maybe I’m being a bit of a “scope” snob here. :)

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  4. “This year’s peons to Thanksgiving …”

    Aren’t these the folks who are forced to work on Thanksgiving?

    Traditionally liberals have offered paeans in workers’ solidarity to them.

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  5. So your view is that first there was a big parade in New York, football on TV on Thursday afternoon, and feasts in nuclear-family isolation, and then as a result came the gatherings of extended families in celebration of their fortunate material plenty?

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    • I’m not sure to what extent the timing matters (though I could perhaps be convinced otherwise). The question is whether Thanksgiving as it really exists today is worth preserving. No one to my knowledge has called to preserve a pre-Parade Thanksgiving. They want to preserve today’s Thanksgiving, and my claim is that the view today’s Thanksgiving through Hallmark-card eyes.

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      • So your claim is if they couldn’t have the parade or the football, they wouldn’t want the day off to spend with family and celebrate togetherness and plenty? That that latter is not what the wanting-the-time-off part of this discussion is really about? I think you have absolutely no cause to believe that. Or is the indefensible part just making more food than you would on a typical day or even for a typical family gathering? I don’t get why that should have any purchase on the validity of the desire to reliably have the time off (paid or unpaid if necessary) to attend gatherings and celebrations.

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      • …Sorry if I’m not understanding, but if the problem is “They want to preserve today’s Thanksgiving,” I don’t see a problem given that what they want to preserve is a time to be able gather and celebrate plenty with friends and family, whatever part parades may or may nit have to do with those celebrations, or if it’s “and my claim is that the view today’s Thanksgiving through Hallmark-card eyes,” I’m sorry, but that’s just vague, stock, cliche phraseology that you can’t expect me to really determine the actual substance of your claim from.

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      • When I was a kid, Thanksgiving meant that there was a Thanksgiving Feast WITH FREAKING EVERYBODY over at somebody’s house. We sat down and had a Long Thanksgiving Day Prayer from The Patriarch before taking less than an hour to eat a meal that took about a day to cook. Then the kids would go off and play, the women would go off to do the dishes, the men would gather to watch The Lions lose… and there was precious little discussion of the shopping that would take place over the weekend.

        A few years ago, there was an incident at a Wal-Mart when a woman used pepper spray in order to ensure that she was one of the people who got a discounted Xbox 360.

        When I think of Thanksgiving nostalgia, I tend to think of the good old days back when stored opened an hour or two early on the Friday after Thanksgiving and nobody brought pepper spray.

        So… 2002ish?

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      • , I admit I haven’t made it too clear. I’m not really anti-Thanksgiving. My real intention was to talk about Black Friday. Since events have conspired to set the two in opposition to one another, and in particular to condemn Black Friday while praising Thanksgiving, I thought to offer another view.

        I recognize that my criticism of Thanksgiving in the OP isn’t exactly balanced. It does indeed neglect to mention any positive attributes of Thanksgiving (which Pinky also notes below). My defenses for that is that (1) many writers all over the internet have been offering it unalloyed praise, making anything I would have to say redundant and (2) it doesn’t exactly support my thesis. :)

        I am willing to acknowledge that Thanksgiving is still probably a net good. I only sought to make Black Friday’s past look good in comparison.

        Jay, I think 2002 would have been about right for Black Friday too. I’ve stayed in this year.

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  6. “I can’t help but notice though that many of my Facebook friends who lodge these complaints were a few years ago implying that Thanksgiving was a celebration of the slaughter of millions of Native Americans.”

    I thought about this very dynamic while reading Ethan’s recent post.

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    • I did a couple of searches here on OT and didn’t see anyone making those implications. Certainly there is a lot of hostility toward stores being open, but I wasn’t able to find any of the authors here flip-flopping on Thanksgiving within the last few years.

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      • I apologize. I did not mean to imply that Ethan or anyone else on that thread did indeed flipflop. Rather, it stood out to me that some of our more liberal members here were steadfastly defending participating in Thanksgiving as the most American of American things and something no one should be denied when, traditionally, that has not been a place staked out by the left. That is not to say that liberals can’t stake that claim, but it was curious to me. Basically, “When did liberals become Thanksgiving’s bigger defenders?” was going through my mind.

        I should have been more clear in how the quoted statement connected with my broader thinking.

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      • The focus on the reverence we should show an ostensibly Christian holiday is also interesting. Again, not inherently contradictory. Presumably there would be similar support for my Pagan friend and the holiday of his choice (and for that matter, Vikram and his own family religious observances). But an interesting dynamic nonetheless, where society as a whole (or commercial society in particular) is being criticized by the left – and defended by the right – for not bending around a sectarian holiday in a more complete manner.

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      • Most people say that Thanksgiving is not a sectarian holiday. If anything, I’d say it’s ostensible secular with a fair degree of sectarian content in actuality, as giving thanks obviously is an act with religious content for just about anyone who’s religious. I’d say it’s an ecumenical and cultural holiday, and that it’s not mystery at all that people want to preserve the tradition that it’s a time when people can pause and reflect on being fortunate (if they’re fortunate enough to be able to take the pause.

        I’d also suggest that the puzzlement over liberals defending the holiday is just a result of the earlier critiques being much louder among a narrow set of liberals than they were broadly shared among lots of liberals. The majority of liberals have always been on board with Thanksgiving, or at least that was always my impression.

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      • I should note that Peggy Noonan (I think) wrote a Thanksgiving Day op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging people to stay home from shopping.

        I have only seen a couple of conservatives defending the opening of stores on Thanksgiving. I think this might be a case of liberals vs. shoppers and retailers rather than liberals vs conservatives.

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  7. Is this article supposed to be facetious? There’s no mention of Thanksgiving as a day of giving thanks. I see it came up a bit in the thread, but this idea of Thanksgiving as family turkey day versus Thanksgiving as shopping day ignores the whole premise of Thanksgiving.

    I’ll admit to being thoroughly stymied by Vikram’s articles, at least lately. They all seem to miss one central idea in the subject matter, like the recent one about work that concept of the virtue of labor. I had the same reaction to the one before that (I forget what it was). I can’t tell if maybe there’s a sense of whimsey about them, that they’re not supposed to be taken seriously.

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    • I just looked it up. It was the one about geographic representation, that overlooked the possibility of good representation by someone outside of one’s self-identified tribe. I’m not trying to trash Vikram here. I’m always open to getting another person’s perspective, but these last few have been more dizzying than eye-opening.

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    • There’s no mention of Thanksgiving as a day of giving thanks.

      I just acknowledged above that I wasn’t attempting at all to give a balanced view of Thanksgiving. This post started off as solely about Black Friday and the Thanksgiving Day discussion was added later.

      I can’t tell if maybe there’s a sense of whimsey about them, that they’re not supposed to be taken seriously.

      Believe it or not, I am writing a post on just that subject. Hopefully that will help a bit.

      Thank you for the feedback, by the way, and for delivering it in a way that makes sense.

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  8. FWIW, the Stuff You Should Know podcast just tackled BF. Apparently, it is something the retailers should be fighting. You have years like this where it ultimately shortens the shopping season (because it is so late and some people are rigid about waiting until BF) and it is no longer the economic boon it once was.

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  9. The big horror meme seems to be Zombies right now… mindless creatures driven by an insatiable hunger devouring everything in their path… who they don’t consume, they infect….

    Then there’s Black Friday.

    Tell me I’m not the only one seeing this irony….

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