December 5, 2011
Black Fridays and Consumption
Thanksgiving evening into the wee hours of Black Friday saw me visiting three different WalMart stores over the course of five hours. This was purely research mind you. Had I been actually seeking to buy things on this journey, I would be crazy. I am not, and to prove so, I will report on my findings.
All three stops were pleasant and largely unremarkable in the sense that the crowds were neither boisterous nor pushy. It was a calm affair. There was no anger, and little apparent frustration, even as we stood in queue for more than an hour past midnight. One rarely stands in line at that time of night with a cheerful crowd.
The checkouts were filled with toys, electronics, TVs, computer games and the like. I must report that one hapless soul stood through the checkout line with nothing more than milk, bread and lettuce. No doubt this Rip Van Winkle spent every Thursday night grocery shopping and was unaware of the onslaught of customers Thanksgiving wrought this year.
Early reports from the National Retail Federation tell us this season saw a seven percent increase over last year’s holiday sales. So Black Friday saw U.S. consumers buying roughly $1.25 billion in goods, or about $169 per American. If this trend continues we’ll see each American spend a tad bit more than $1,500 this year during the holiday shopping season. This represents about a quarter of all retail shopping at most major stores. By comparison, in the height of the Great Depression, the average American spent some $20 over the holiday season. Adjusted for inflation, this is about $360 of today’s dollars. We are more than a bit better off than our grandparents.
Holiday consumption today is larger, both in absolute terms (we are much richer) and as a share of our total retail spending. The reason for the latter is that as we become richer, we spend much less of our income on retail goods. We spend a greater share of our larger income on such things as health care, entertainment and other personal services, not retail. In this season we spend more as a share of our retail consumption than in decades past.
This fuels the illusion of a commercialized holiday season, which has more to do with hearts than pocketbooks. Consumption isn’t the culprit, and while we might lament times gone by, we would do better to remember that this trend started perhaps three centuries ago. That is when we started to become richer and spent our money on such lighthearted items as holiday parties and gifts.
This growing wealth saw us make other seemingly frivolous expenditures included a third pair of clothes, toothbrushes and schooling for our daughters. The truth is that this larger choice of goods and services makes us better off and as a society. My WalMart experience did no one harm, while reminding me that an appreciation for such bourgeois items as can be found at WalMart remain part of the marvel of our age of riches.
About the Author
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