Down The Black Friday Rabbit Hole

by , Nov 29, 2013, 8:15 AM
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Best Buy is rolling the dice today. They want you to send in Vine videos of least attractive aspect of T-Day/Black Friday sales – waiting outside in the cold. We have stepped into some kind of consumer post-modernism here.

Of course, all retailers are betting big on the Black Friday tradition. Personally, I still find it odd that a former b2b term referencing the day when many retailers went into the black on their ledgers actually became consumer culture nomenclature. There is something strangely reflexive built into this annual ritual of teasing shopper frenzy. It gets really odd when you consider that other riotous terminology like “doorbusters” creeps into the mix. Isn't one of the scandalous side effects of Black Friday rude and violent incidents at malls and storefronts -- events that always prompt conciliatory and apologetic press releases from retail companies? And yet part of the ritual itself is firing up crowds with limited-time sales, appeals to the hunting instinct, and “doorbuster” rhetoric.

In fact, we are so far down the rabbit hole on this one that the discomfort associated with Black Friday is now a selling point. Best Buy wants people to share the pain of waiting outside their stores, in line, in the cold, before the opening bell. In what some might consider a risky proposition at best, the company is inviting shoppers to send Vine videos to the #vineonline hashtag to record their experiences waiting outside of BestBuy this holiday weekend.

Yeah -- most sentient beings immediately imagine how this might turn out. Will we get 6-second blasts of sharp elbow nudges, hot tempers and mob rushes on bins of sale items? Who knows? We will see. As I said, Best Buy apparently is rolling the dice on this one.

They will curate the videos by retweeting the best. But the raw feed of items will be visible for anyone at the #vineonline hashtag. And of course, a great many Tweeters are responding to the effort with sheer disgust that Best Buy and so many other stores are open on Thanksgiving itself.  

There is a lot of metacommentary on the wisdom or lack thereof behind this PR strategy. Many wonder what kind of mayhem we will see recorded on the feed.

Ultimately, the #fail here may be lack of interest. As of Thanksgiving morning, there were only a few Vine posts here, and they were commenting on how no one else was with them. There was more commentary about the effort and judging its wisdom than actual Vine posts.    

And that is the real weirdness of Black Friday that in some way circles back to the name itself. It is a wholly self-conscious annual ritual in which we both engage in and shallowly reflect on consumption itself. The coverage and commentary around Black Friday is as much a part of the process now as shopping. And the core ritual is odd. Stores tease shoppers with deals that only a small number of people will likely grab by waiting in line. Everyone knows the deals are designed to maximize foot traffic and get consumers to buy other stuff at normal margins. And the shoppers are game, because there is the off chance they will get one of these super deals in the process. It has the feel of a lottery -- another game that is rigged in favor of the house. The thrill and sport of it all seem to be the real payoff because everyone is in on the scam.  

My guess is that a cynical calculation has already been made by retailers about Black Friday. Opening on Thanksgiving may entail a nominal PR hit, but mainly among those who weren't coming to shop that day anyway. And store incidents have little half-life. Surely we will see this weekend in-store video cams of ugly behavior, tramplings, and store employees whose holiday has already been compromised running for cover against stampedes of bargain hunters. If your retail brand gets associated with store riots on this weekend's newscasts, so what? Everyone knows that boycotts don't work. And there is always that slice of shopper who will be turned on by the consumer carnage and think this must be a real hot place to shop if others are risking life and limb to get a talking doll at 40% off.

This is an event targeting a certain kind of sport shopper for whom a little blood and guts, a broken jaw here and there, shattered store window glass only adds to the experience. After you engage in the chaos, you stand back and shake your head about how crazy some people are. Ask any of these line-waiters whether they think it is a shame that stores are opening on Thanksgiving and that underpaid employees have no choice but to miss out on a day off with family, and most will agree. The hypocrisy is not just with retailers. It is in ourselves. 

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