In late November of each year, families will pack up their things and travel across country to visit their “loved” ones. These families will sit around a table, eat a bunch of food and watch a lot of football. Later that night, they will leave their turkey (and alcohol) induced comas and enter the annual free-for-all event known as Black Friday. This invented holiday represents not only the start of the Christmas season, but has also been the busiest retail day each year since 2005.
When we last left the department store with Gunther Barth, we discussed how it, along with other “new” urban structures such as ballparks and the metro press, helped form a sense of community among such a vast amount of people. As far as the department store went, it allowed everyone in the city to buy from the same choice of readily-available items. Since everyone knew what else the other options were, the choice of item indicated status.
Black Friday represents an inversion of that idea, as the choice of items does not create a sense of community. Rather, the choice breaks down a sense of community – at least not into any community I want to be a part of. First off, the stores discount prices on many of the products they think will sell the best, namely electronics (depending on the store). These discounts could be anywhere around 50% off, which waters down the status association with items. Although the items retain their status associations, they are discounted enough to allow even lower-income families to afford them. For example, a lower-income family can buy a fairly large TV because it has been discounted down to $100.
Because these items are marked down so much, the competition over them prevents a sense of community from forming between the shoppers. Take, for example, the California woman that acted like a police officer at an Occupy protest and pepper sprayed a group of people so she could get an Xbox 360. (NOTE: Recent evidence suggest she might have been acting in self defense). While not all of the Black Friday shoppers are going around blasting people in the face with pepper spray, this is just an example of the violence that could break out between shoppers competing for bargains. Most, however, simply get in line early so they can get in the store first and have the most access to those bargains. I spoke to a woman sitting at the front of a line outside of a Belk’s. She got there two hours before I spoke to her in near-freezing temperatures, and the store did not yet open for another two and a half hours. Funny thing is, she didn’t even want anything in the store – Belk’s was just giving away a gift card to the first few people in line.
Speaking of long lines, they seem to be the only place where a community could form. Like the department stores Barth described, retail centers on Black Friday attract people from a geographically widespread area. The difference between Barth’s department stores and today’s discount stores is that the department stores did not have to deal with suburbanization. Since modern cities are more spread out than they once were due to suburbanization, people will come from further out. Atlanta, for example, was recently named the fourth busiest city on Black Friday in the United States. Since our great city was ranked up with urban centers such as New York, I would imagine that it could be even busier per capita than the other cities. Perhaps seeking to escape some of the crowds in the city, Atlantans will venture far out just to find that deal.
Although the simple fact that these stores have a limited area condenses the different shoppers anyway, the crowd is not evenly distributed throughout the store. Don’t expect to find that many people in the cleaning supplies section of the store. Rather, the checkout lines are what tend to dominate. I went to one Best Buy where the line wrapped around the perimeter of the store…twice. Meanwhile, a nearby Target had two different checkout lines, one of which was just for the electronics section. While the electronics checkout line stretched almost to the back of the store, the main one actually zigzagged (that’s a word) through the 20 or so different isles of food.
Gunther Barth, City People (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1980).