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To Shop or Not to Shop?

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November 20, 2014

With Thanksgiving only a week away, people are already starting to talk about their opinions on Black Friday.

Much has been said about Black Friday shopping from people on both sides of the issue. There are some people who would prefer that we restrict whether stores can be open on Thanksgiving day or the next day, saying people deserve to have that time off of work.

There are others who insist that Black Friday is a great day for our economy, touting record numbers of sales that day. Both sides have legitimate arguments, so let’s take a look at the reasons given for each position.

Reasons not to Shop

1. Consumerism

There has been a movement to make Thanksgiving and Black Friday two days where it is socially unacceptable to shop. This is driven mostly by disdain for the growing consumerism that Black Friday represents, and also an increased level of commercialism in our holidays. This is an excellent point.

After all, it is a little bit ironic that we are expected to be thankful for what we have on Thursday, and then go out and spend as much money as possible on new things the very next day. Buy Nothing Day is a movement to restrict the amount of demand for goods and services that day, making retailers think twice about choosing to open for business.

2. Holiday Time off for Family/Friends

One of the most oft-repeated reasons people have for discouraging or restricting Black Friday activities is that they believe everyone should have the opportunity to have that time off to spend with family or friends. This is important for many who can be forced into working that day, at risk of losing their job if they fail to comply.

Critics of Black Friday shopping have differing strategies on how to accomplish the goal of allowing people to have that time off, but the most common is to work toward pushing the time of sales back or completely preventing stores from opening their doors until Thanksgiving is officially over.

3. Wage theft

Black Friday is usually a day of soaring sales and record profits. That can be great for the economy, but on a day when the company makes a vast amount of money higher than the average day, the workers continue to make wages below the poverty line. For hours worked on Thanksgiving Day itself, workers may get holiday pay (time and a half) but that is unlikely for workers on Black Friday.

So on what is likely the biggest sales day of the year, and most stressful and busy for employees that might rather be spending that time with friends and family, the corporations fail to allow those excess profits to help their workers.

This is what I would consider wage theft, and it contributes to the spending on Black Friday being less effective at improving economic growth. After all, if more of that money went to workers, they would be able to afford to spend more themselves and increase the economic multiplier.

4. Ability Privilege

Even spaces that are normally accessible for individuals with disabilities are not navigable for those people on a day like Black Friday. The increase in traffic, the difficulty in finding parking close to stores, the restricted availability for services like restrooms, and the long check-out lines make ability privilege even more prevalent. This access issue means that taking advantage of good prices is reserved only for those physically able to handle those conditions.

5. Workers are Unable to Participate

Some are quick to tout the benefits of low sale prices for working class families. However, they are also much more likely to be forced to work on that day, meaning they will not in fact be able to take advantage of these sales. And to add insult to injury, if they are working retail, they may be working for incredibly low wages anyway, meaning they are the group that would get the most benefit from lower prices.

So these companies force employees to work for poverty wages while they make record profits, and then the employees have to shop another day and pay even more for gifts and other items than the people they worked so hard to serve on Black Friday.

Reasons it is Okay to Shop

1. Some People Need to Work

Unfortunately, due to our struggling economy, shrinking middle class, and stagnant minimum wage level, there are many people who simply cannot afford to take time off work for any reason. Often we assume that people are always coerced into working, but without understanding how it feels to be in difficult financial situations, we can’t possibly understand why someone would actually want to work that day.

So this issue works both ways. It is unfortunate that some are forced to work on Black Friday, but it would also be unfortunate if others were forced not to work in the same manner.

However, this argument would be more effective if companies were forced to pay workers holiday pay rates for Black Friday. That would be one way to actually help the people forced into this situation.

2. Plenty of People Work on Holidays

There are many people who can’t take a day off, holiday or otherwise, because their job is too important to leave undone. Our doctors, police, EMTs, members of the armed forces, and others in critical services  need to work or else our society wouldn’t be able to function.  Our hospitals and police forces need to function every day, holiday or not.

So if these people, widely respected, are not allowed time off, why is it that we insist “everyone” should be able to spend time with family? It’s clearly not possible. Granted, that isn’t to say it isn’t preferable for people that want time off to be able to attain that. But someone has to continue to work, or else our society would shut down.

3. Not Everyone Wants to Spend Time with Family

Another issue I have with the criticisms of Black Friday shopping is that many assume people necessarily want that time off to spend with family. But this shows a good deal of privilege in perspective. Not everyone has family to spend holidays with, or would choose that if they do.

There are a good deal of people that would like to work any chance they can. See above reason #1. We shouldn’t be assuming people’s desires and forcing public policy based on that.

Maybe a reasonable solution would be to prevent retailers from forcing employees to work against their will, rather than preventing them from opening their doors at all. Keeping stores from opening may hurt as many workers as you help.

4. Some can only Afford to Shop on Black Friday

Above we talked about people having the ability to afford certain items only because of sales on Black Friday. And while I am critical of this opinion above, it is important to note that this is a critical shopping day for many working class families. It is an opportunity to be able to afford items they would not otherwise be able to access, or at least save them enough money on those items to reduce the financial strain on them.

5. Improve the Economy

All else being equal, spending helps the economy grow. Granted, that spending is better if locally produced and sold by smaller stores, but even spending on imported goods helps the local economy some. It would, however, be better if the employees made significantly higher wages rather than allow all of the surplus spending go toward corporate profits.

Since Black Friday has the highest sales numbers of the year, it certainly has an effect on economic factors like wages, employment levels, and production levels. Improving those things helps everyone, but it would be nicer to see some effort being put into ensuring the majority of the gains go to the workers. After all, 95% of economic growth since 2009 has gone to the top 1%.

How is this about Justice?

Certain opportunities aren’t afforded to some groups. Things like class and ability privilege play a large factor in things like this. But also race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation can play roles as well.

Not only do people who belong to some groups make less money on average, therefore influencing their decision to go for Black Friday sales, but also crowds and restricted access to accommodations like restrooms can make it difficult or dangerous for some people to be able to participate.

Retail workers often are paid wages below the poverty line. This makes a day like Black Friday more important to them than one day at a job is for many others. If everyone decided to not shop that day like many would prefer, those people would not be needed at their job and would miss out on a day or two’s wages. That can be the difference in making ends meet.

On the other hand, retail workers often have little bargaining power with employers to seek time off if they do wish to spend the holiday with family, or – gasp – shopping. But because of the incredibly high demand, they are basically forced to work, and for the same wages as they’d make any other day. I, for one, would be in favor of requiring holiday pay (time and a half) for workers on Black Friday. At least then these workers would be given a reward for the sacrifice of their time.

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