Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Campers Give Their Lives for Black Friday Bargains

Perhaps I am suffering from a willful amnesia, but I do not recall in previous years people camping out on Wednesday for their Black Friday shopping binges.  But this year I was struck by how widespread this has become.

Perhaps the camping is made more attractive because more stores are starting their Black Friday bargain-bin orgies at midnight instead of 6 a.m.  So really those campers consumed by consuming are out in the cold for just a little over 24 hours.  So it's no big deal, right?

But the campers are not ALL lined up at the stores opening at midnight.  Some will be spending two nights (some more than that) outside, waiting to get the latest gadgets and toys at the lowest prices.

I wonder, though.  Are they saving that much?

Sure, they can get flat panel HD televisions for half price, saving a few hundred dollars.  Similar discounts on other items abound.  But shouldn't the cost analysis include the time they spent camping out?  (Not to mention the time away from their families on the holiday.)

Henry David Thoreau
When I saw those early images of the retail devotees, I thought of Henry David Thoreau and what he said in his book Walden: "... the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it."

That is, the price of an object is not counted merely in the number of dollars you must sacrifice, but also in the time required to earn those dollars, the time required to travel to the store and obtain the item, and, especially for Thoreau, the amount of time required to maintain the object once it is acquired. 

What is the true cost, then, of that smart phone or Furby?  If the campers had to calculate the amount of their life they exchanged for those hot Christmas-list items, would the deals be worth it?

The bargains become especially dubious when we consider just how many gifts are returned -- last year about $46 billion in gifts were taken back.  Economist Joel Waldfogel thinks gift-giving is bad for the economy, partly because so many of us are bad at it -- "on average gifts generate 20 percent less satisfaction than items we buy for ourselves."  All those unwanted presents?  According to him they are destroyed wealth.  The time you spent earning the money (and perhaps the time spent camping out) to buy the present that winds up returned or stored in a closet and never used?  It is worth nothing.  Wasted.

However, I imagine a great deal of the shopping that happens on Black Friday is more hedonism than altruism.  That iPad is going home with the camper and not being sent to a cousin.  At least in that case, Waldfogel would not call the purchases commerce rather than destruction, so that is good.  But Thoreau would ask whether the bargain was worth it.

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