Thursday 4 December 2014

Black Friday: birth of a retail festival

The year for most UK citizens is organised by retail festivals.

New Year's Day pumps up the sales fever generated by Christmas, at least for those whose credit cards are not maxed out.

Then we have Valentine's Day: big opportunity to sell cards and chocolate

Then Mother's Day: big opportunity to sell cards and flowers

Then Easter: more cards, more chocolate

Then things go off a bit, with no recognisable festivals for a while. They've had a bit of success getting Father's Day off the ground. Otherwise it's summer with promotions of barbecues, umbrellas and wellingtons.

Things pick up again around August and September with the start of the new school year.

Then we get Christmas #1, with puddings, cakes and crackers in the shops in September, which are then cleared from the shelves for...

Halloween: lots of opportunities to sell all sorts of tat. Closely followed by....

Guy Fawkes: plenty of sales opportunities there. And then....

Then it's Christmas #2 all the way to Dec 25th.

And now we have a new retail festival, Black Friday, which inserts itself neatly after Nov 5th, and kick starts the Christmas shopping spree.

There are three basic reactions to Black Friday a) I'VE GOT A 48” TV!!!!!!   b) wonder why we've taken up this American import and the country's going to the dogs  c) ignore it.

Personally, I'm in the “ignore it” category, but as a social scientist I find both the festival itself and the reaction to it fascinating.

I'm not sure about its genesis over here, but I suspect Amazon have a lot to do with it, and a lot of other retailers spotted the opportunity. So maybe it isn't because of the workings of any one organisation or group of organisations; it's just that retailers collectively noticed that this was something they could leverage.

I call it a festival because that is what it is. It is exactly the same as the other festivals - Christmas and Easter included, which have no religious or spiritual meaning for the vast majority of the country, but are an opportunity to throw off the normal routine of life and get expansive both spiritually and physically, for a short time, before going back to the drudgery of normality. And they signify that our entire society and economy are based on consumption. Citizenship and spirituality have both gone out of the window as a measure of any value. People in the UK value themselves by and large by what they spend, and these regular retail festivals are an opportunity to spend big. I say the UK because I think it's one thing in which we are world leaders. The rest of the world is not far behind but the Thatcherite implementation of neoliberalism has turned us into a nation that knows the cost of most things and the value of very little. So we buy stuff, and we love a bargain (whether or not we know a good one when we see it). And if people queue for hours, burst into the shops in a riot, get into fisticuffs with each other over the goods, what else should we expect. That is what our British values of consumerism and social disengagement encourage.

There is no point in blaming the Americans. The fact that it started in America is immaterial. It is not an import. It is here because it works, and it works very well. I am quite sure that this is now an established British retail festival, just like all the others, as I said earlier. And the biggest of all is Christmas, which has shed its religious meaning for all but a few. George Carey in the Daily Mail notes “A survey last week found that only 31 out of nearly a thousand advent calendars sold in Oxford Street had any religious references.” Why is that noteworthy? We know we are not a Christian country except in a nominal, traditionalist way. He tries to buck himself up by continuing, “But despite all this, churches and cathedrals will be packed for the darkness-into-light services.” Research suggests that maybe five million people will attend church during Advent. But that means that fifty five million don't. There is no reason why they should: advent has no meaning for them. The message of the gospel was lost some time ago, submerged by the message of consumerism. For those of us who are Christians (myself included) it is time to stop pretending that we live in a Christian country and recognise the reality of the current triumph of consumerism. Only when we do that will we be able to start fighting back effectively.

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