Black Friday and other dark days

Ylan Q. Mui

Washington Post

Published: Saturday, Nov. 27 2010 7:39 p.m. MST

If you discount it, they will come.

That's the philosophy of retailers at the holiday season, judging by the predictably exuberant quality of their ads. Doorbuster deals! Midnight madness! Gobblepalooza!

Ready, set, charge!

Such hyperventilation has become par for the course on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that traditionally kicks off the holiday shopping season. That one day accounted for nearly $11 billion in sales last year, according to research firm ShopperTrak.

But as the country stumbles toward economic recovery, one short day is apparently no longer enough to win the hearts and minds — and wallets — of American consumers, particularly when retailers rely on holiday shopping to ring up as much as half of their annual sales. In recent years, the industry has filled the calendar with a slew of new landmark shopping days to keep consumers fired up right through Christmas.

There is Small Business Saturday, started by American Express this year to send customers to those long-suffering mom-and-pop shops. Then comes Cyber Monday, created by a trade group, when we return to work after Thanksgiving and collectively slack off by shopping online. Free Shipping Day, the brainchild of a coupon site, comes next. And Super Saturday, a retail industry term, rounds out the season on the last weekend before Christmas.

Exhausted yet? There's more.

As the calendar has become more crowded, retailers have resorted to increasingly far-fetched ideas to stand out. Infomercials tried to muscle into the game with a short-lived Info-Mania Sunday in 2007. That was the same year Wal-Mart called for Friday to be stretched over two days — a 48-hour Black Friday to accommodate its deals. This year, social coupon site Groupon wins "Most Creative" with the introduction of Grouponicus, a "holiday" when deals last longer than the usual one day.

"Believers acknowledge that all other winter holidays are obsolete," states one of the tenets of Grouponicus.

This ridiculousness is rooted in history. The retail industry has shaped our celebration of Christmas even before the first miracle on 34th Street. In 1939, as the country was recovering from the Great Depression, retailers lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving one week earlier to give people more time to shop for the holidays, ostensibly to boost the economy. He caved, but Congress changed it back to the last Thursday of November within two years.

Two generations later, stores are in the same position and are turning to the same techniques. Too much is riding on the holiday season to allow shoppers to browse on their own volition, with holiday sales expected to rise a meager 2.3 percent over last year's total, to $447 billion.

So retailers are ginning gin up special occasions for us to shop. There can be kernels of real consumer behavior trends behind them — online retailers saw spikes in sales before they coined the term "Cyber Monday" five years ago, for example — but the equation can flip quickly. Now, it is often the sales that are in search of shoppers, rather than the other way around. Anyone want a $19.99 Martha Stewart enamel cast-iron pot, down from $39.99 at Macy's?

Anyone?

I wonder what would happen if retailers just relaxed and consumers shopped free-range, grazing stores at their own speed. If no one worried that they had missed the Biggest Sale of the Year! Or, worse, that they were duped because the true Biggest Sale of the Year! was still to come.

I do love a good deal. But the limited-time-only pressure can be bruising, and I like to believe that we would still shop — and more merrily — without it. Surely it can't be necessary to camp outside a Best Buy a full 10 days before Black Friday, as the company said one family did this year at a store in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Maybe instead of busting down the doors, we could just amble through them. That's not what the retailers want, though. They want our calendars filled, so that now, just a few days after Thanksgiving, I already feel behind.

Ylan Q. Mui is a business reporter for The Washington Post.

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