"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 29, 2013

Shopping On Thanksgiving….???

The Guardian in a post-mortem poll is asking readers if they feel stores should be open on Thanksgiving.  Not surprisingly over 80 percent of those responding said ‘No’.  There is something wrong, they feel, about desecrating a family holiday with commercialism.  There is enough time for shopping on just about every other day of the year, so why sully a near-sacred American holiday?

Alas, it is only a matter of time before all 365 days are shopping days. After all, private businesses close not because they have to but because giving a day off to employees is an easy, cost-effective benefit.  Trade traffic is always slow on Thanksgiving, so why not close up shop for a day?

However, American-born employees in retail are getting rarer and rarer; and Africans and Latinos have no problem coming to work on holidays  They could care less about the Fourth of July or Memorial day and would rather get a day off on Id or on the feast of San Pedro El Poderoso, so they would for sure work on Thanksgiving.

The question is, however, if stores were open on Thanksgiving, would people shop?  The assumption that they would not – that the pull of family, food, and football is so great that nothing could distract them from this warm and happy holiday – is false. Whistlin’ Dixie. Half the people seated around the Thanksgiving table are there because of guilt or obligation – blowing off Mom and Dad simply isn’t done – and Uncle Harry would rather be anywhere but in the same room with warty Mabel Widgens, but duty to is sister calls. 

Face it, even if you like the groaning board, the assemblage of bits and pieces of family, and the sharing of old chestnuts, you wouldn’t mind getting out for some air. Maybe some people have Black Friday off, but not everybody; and the dripping faucet that has been driving you crazy can easily be fixed with a 3/4” washer from Home Depot.  Besides, what else is there to do in that yawning space between waking up and the trip down to Auntie Angie’s? Or once the bloat wears off from the meal?

There is no logic to the perfunctory Thanksgiving closures, since there are lots of Salvadorans and Burkinabe who are willing to work.  Look at it this way – each and every one of those 110,000 people at the Cowboys-Oakland game bought something on Thanksgiving – tickets, NFL paraphernalia, ribs, beer, and enchiladas, 

CVS is open on Thanksgiving – ostensibly to be sure that customers can get their meds – but ‘drug’ stores sell drugs as a sideline.  Most people shopping at Walgreens are there for the cigarettes, candy, milk, batteries, and shoe polish.  My Starbucks was jammed on Thanksgiving morning, and people were buying scones, coffee beans, and newspapers along with their coffee. The florist on the corner kept morning hours – a fresh bouquet is always a nice way to take the edge off relatives like Aunt Tally who, by the time the turkey is done, is frazzled to the bone from all the cooking.

This is not even to mention the billions of dollars in online business that is transacted on Thanksgiving.  Not only are people getting a head start on Christmas, but they are finally getting around to ordering tablets, Apps, gadgets, speakers, and running shoes they have been putting off.  In fact, Internet speeds are notoriously slow on Thanksgiving morning.

If stores would only open on Thanksgiving, a trip to the mall would be just what the doctor ordered after sitting around with the family all day – add some glitz and pizazz to the dullest day of the year.  The Apple Store, Best Buy, Leather Saddles, and Purissimo Cigars are just the places to lift one’s spirits.

The thing to remember is that shopping is in our blood.  Hard as it may seem to some – Main Line WASPs and Nantucketers in particular – most people really enjoy Black Friday.  The no-holds-barred, extreme shopping experience is a pure adrenalin rush.  For Real X-Shoppers, Thanksgiving is just a day to store up resources for the real event. It is wrong to assume that Americans look at Thanksgiving as a day of rest and respite from commercialism.  On the contrary it is an obligatory, barely tolerated pause in commercial activity.

Full disclosure: I hate shopping and always have.  My mother bought all my clothes until I was 30 when my wife took over.  Even today I rely on my children to notice my fraying cuffs, ragged collars, and beat-up shoes and to buy me new clothes.  When I finally get around to buying something for myself, I always buy three of each.  I have always driven hand-me-down cars.  My father’s old Buicks always broke down, but they were transportation.  I could never figure out what he did to them to make them spurt oil, shave grindings off transmission gears, and overheat. 

A few years ago my father-in-law gave us an old Plymouth Volare wagon.  It was indestructible, but since it was 20 years old and had been through some bad, salty New England winters was shedding paint and looking doggy.  In fact there were rusted out holes in the floor and because of the water splashed in from the road, the carpets were soaked and mushrooms began to grow.  The front grille – a cheap plastic part and far from the snazzy chrome models I grew up with – was cracked, and finally half of it fell off when I hit a pothole. 

My daughter was so embarrassed by the car that she insisted that I drop her off two blocks from school. My mechanic – whose kids I put through school repairing cars that should long ago have been consigned to a West Virginia scrap heap – lectured me on the Volare.  “I can fix it, Mr. Parlato”, he said, “but it will break down again,.  Don’t you think it is time for a new car?”

“Just keep the rubber on the road, Tim”, I replied, “and we will deal with the new car another time”.

I know that all this is not normal.  No one hates the buying experience like I do.  No one experiences the near freeze-up when confronted with choice, the impatience, the irretrievable loss of valuable time by spending it in the marketplace rather than on the golf course.  The older I get, the worse this buying aversion becomes. I no longer check out the trim of my jib, for I no longer sail with sleek young things who would notice. I can’t get the lines of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock out of my head:

I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.

I really don’t much care if my trouser legs drag or the collars of my shirts are too big. Or put in more American terms, I am ready to pass on the shopping torch to the younger generation – 20- and 30-somethings who love to shop.  My niece – God knows where she gets it since my sister is a lot like me – has a closet full of shoes.  Whereas I have three pairs – walking, stepping out, and trips to the grocery store – she has over a hundred.  The thing is, she looks great in them. The same for her racks of camisoles, skirts, blouses, and dresses; or her drawers of watches, bracelets, ear rings, and necklaces.  She is doing her duty and looking great as a result.

If you doubt what I say about Thanksgiving going the way of all old-fashioned, non-commercial pauses in the calendar and joining the mainstream, daily, consistent, and unstoppable buying, just look around.  Ads for products are everywhere – on television, in store fronts, on posters, electronic billboards. On in-flight magazines, hotel lobbies, and taxi cabs.  Our entire life is made up of frequent purchases and even more frequent shopping experiences.  Canny marketers know that shopping is psychologically more rewarding that the actual purchase.  Shopping is the stuff of dreams, desires, and wishes.  More often than not, the item purchased ends up gathering dust someplace in the house.  We are taught from the moment we crawl out of our cribs how to value capital and labor.  We automatically know how much something is supposed to cost.  It is an internal compass, an unerring human GPS system, getting us to the right price.

What makes anyone think that Thanksgiving and Christmas, the only two days where shopping is curtailed – not completely stopped – should remain out of line?  Sooner rather than later we will be a 365/365 consumer society.  It is only a matter of time.

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