It’s here again – Black Friday.
It’s the one day (or two in some cases) a year where big box retailers are flooded by Americans ravenously hunting for bargain deals to satiate their holiday gift giving responsibilities. It’s a day which signals the start of the official holiday shopping season.
Originally, Black Friday was given its name because that was when retailers would start to go into the black in the fourth quarter. Thus, they would discount their inventory to get rid of it. While people might believe that Black Friday discounts are a result of an overabundance of inventory, these prices are preset with the discount built in. Even the biggest tactic to get people in the door – the Door Buster Deals – are extremely limited in quantity, often down to under 10 items per deal.
On top of all of that, Black Friday has resulted in deaths and major injuries. From people being trampled, hit by cars, or even shot, the day has devolved into the worst example of American capitalism. What’s funny is that all this happens after a day where we are supposed to surround ourselves with friends and family and reflect on what we are thankful for.
However, it looks like Black Friday’s days may be limited.
With sales in 2015 hitting a striking low, foot traffic in stores is expected to drop 3.5 percent this shopping season. In 2015, Black Friday sales were expected to reach $135.7 million, but only clocked in at $102 million. In fact, every year since 2012 Black Friday has become less and less successful, especially as companies across the country are starting to “opt out” of the chaos.
Funnily enough, that’s what Seattle sporting goods and camping gear giant REI famously called their non-Black Friday campaign. Last year, REI closed their stores on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday asking their customers to #OptOutside. The motivation behind the campaign was to help people tap into the joy, renewal and connection that comes from spending time outside with friends and family. They see Black Friday as a perfect time to do that.
REI’s move garnered much praise and inspired nearly 500 organizations to join their #OptOutside initiative. So, if REI’s theory is correct, not participating in Black Friday promotes joy, renewal, and builds connections with friends and family, then participating in the “holiday” must promote the opposite – misery, exhaustion, and disconnect.
But is that fair to say? To find out the truth about what it is like to participate in Black Friday, I wanted to speak to the employees who work it. So, I sat down with my mother who has worked every single Black Friday since 1980 on the floor of one of the largest retailers on Earth. Every day after Thanksgiving was a day where my mother wasn’t at home, and I never asked her what it was like. Until today.
For a little background, the retail chain my Mom works for employs about 245,000 employees with median tenure of 2.8 years. This puts my mom in the 99.85 percentile with only around 375 other employees working there longer than herself. This corporation is over 100 years old and is a great example of corporate America. My mother has never worked at the corporate level and always inside the retail stores itself. She’s trained thousands of staff members, and helped millions of customers. When the economy crashed in 2008, the corporation used loopholes to change the title of positions and eliminate others. This forced a new wage segment for the employees within that position. If you wanted to stay at the company, you needed to find a way to move from your position into a new one. Since then, she has not received a raise in seven years, even though she consistently receives above average yearly reviews for performance.
SON: So, Mom, Thanksgiving is tomorrow. I am cooking because you will be at work, and you are also working Black Friday. You’ve worked Black Friday for the last 36 years, must be a record.
MOM: Not all 36 years because we didn’t have Black Friday when I started but I’ve worked every black Friday the company has had. In 1980, I don’t remember my company getting into Black Friday.
SON: Was Black Friday a thing elsewhere back then, or when did it become prevalent?
MOM: I don’t recall Black Friday being big in the early 80’s.
SON: When do you remember it becoming a big deal?
MOM: In the late 80’s it started, I remember people lining up in front of our store to buy our products. At that time, we had some Christmas light sets that people went insane on. They would come in and be angry when the store sold out. People started to lose the spirit of the holidays and spending time together then.
SON: Has Black Friday become worse or better since it started?
MOM: Well, I think it got worse. The deals are not that great anymore. When they first started doing it, we had good deals on decorations and stuff. But now, the deals are not as good, but I find some of the other retailers seem to be going harder and harder. I’ve seen people get injured just trying to get to the deals.
SON: What is the craziest thing you’ve seen working Black Friday?
MOM: One time we advertised deer’s that lit up for out in your yard. It was down to the last two, and it was a buy one get one free type of deal. These two ladies were fighting over who got there first and who got the deer’s. They were screaming and yelling and we had to step in and break it up.
SON: Did your company every start opening earlier because of Black Friday?
MOM: We started opening an hour earlier about a year after the first Black Friday. It has never been as bad as some of the other retailers. But then it started on Thanksgiving as well. We came in earlier and Thanksgiving is now all about preparing for Black Friday. I find that the retailers are staying open longer for the holidays. Christmas at my company is a normal day. We are open every day, and never reduce hours, we only expand them.
SON: Do the major retail executives care about the wellbeing of the employees?
MOM: No. It’s all about the money, they do not care about the employees. Every year my company puts out a survey to the employees about how they can better the company and every year I tell them that they need to have shorter hours for the holidays. We used to only be open from 9-5 on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but now we are full regular hours. Myself and my colleagues work till midnight on the holidays.
SON: How has your company’s care for its employees changed over your 36 years working there?
MOM: Well, *exhales* you’re just a number. I can be replaced tomorrow by anyone. They do not care about long-term employees. I stopped getting raises years ago because I am at the top of my “position” (which is a title changed frequently to modify pay at the will of the corporation). They don’t care about us anymore.
SON: What was it like working there the first 10 years versus the last 10?
MOM: Oh, when I first started working there I loved it. I was proud to say where I worked. We had great retirement plans to retain people. I got a raise every year. It seemed like they generally cared about our lives. But now, they just see me for my employ ID. They cut out Christmas bonuses and I remember one November my family was having a really tough time financially.
and… I needed the bonus. Because it was a good bonus, and I was going to buy my kids their Christmas stocking stuffers and presents and in November we found out they were cutting them out. So, I didn’t get my kids any presents and it was really hard. But they didn’t care, they just cut them, so I had nothing to use. They have taken away medical retirement from people which they used to have.
SON: You said you used to be proud of working there. Do you care what happens to the company now?
MOM: Umm, not really. I guess the only reason I care is I don’t want to lose my job. It’s a job and I’ll have it until I retire in six years. I know I’ll have a job and I’ll have insurance. But other than that, no it doesn’t matter to me what happens to the company.
SON: Is there a comparison between Black Friday, staying open on the holidays, and the general way in which major corporations treat their employees overtime?
MOM: I think so. It became all about money and profits. If they cared about the people who make them the millions they have, they wouldn’t expect them to come in earlier and stay later on holidays. The CEO doesn’t work on the holidays. The “deals” they have they run throughout the whole season. But they make it a huge thing and trick people to line up and go crazy.
SON: Do you think the focus on the money from consumers trying to save as much as they can and businesses trying to make as much as they can hurts society? How has society changed?
MOM: People today don’t enjoy the holidays anymore. They obsess for weeks over the Black Friday deals. They plan their Thanksgiving meals around when they need to line up. Everyone is in such a hurry and it’s all about money. People want to save as much money as they can, and others want to make as much as they can. Then people get hurt, families get strained.
SON: What do the holidays mean to you?
MOM: It’s so important to me. It doesn’t matter how you celebrate or what you celebrate. Everyone has something. It has always been to me a time to be with those who you care for, and to take a day to just stop the rat race. We go and go every day. American’s are notorious for working more than they need to. Most European countries have weeks of mandatory time off. America has none. So, we need to protect the holidays, not make it a normal day on steroids. It’s about community, about being with your friends and family, the people you love.
SON: Let’s flash forward six years and you are about to retire. The CEO comes into your store and thanks you for your service of 42 years. He asks you to give him one piece of advice. What do you say?
MOM: Well, I mean if they come in that is sort of hard for me because I would want to thank them for my time there. But, if I had to give them one piece of advice I would say, I’ve noticed a change over the years. In the last 16 years, I have not felt valued at all. I work 35 years and it’s hey here is a cake, get back to work. I don’t feel invested in the company. Start valuing the employees you have, instead of constantly turning over the people you have to better jobs and better companies.
End of Interview
We need to consider the shopping, that hungry, desperate consumer who wants nothing more than to provide their child with the Tickle Me Elmo, PS4, or other hot holiday item at an affordable price. Is the risk worth the reward?
So, if you’re consider going out to get those crazy deals this Black Friday, think about this: Is it worth the misery you’ll feel waiting in line, the exhaustion from getting up in the wee hours and fighting your way through the crowds, or the disconnection from your family? Wouldn’t it be better to stay at home, spend time with your family and friends, and reduce the violence while sending a message to business leaders to take the day off so their employees can stay home?
With recent times being what they are, holding your family close for a day might be the best Black Friday deal you can come across – a true and priceless bargain.