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Nov 28 2011

Shopping as a reality TV-based competitive sport

Well, another Thanksgiving holiday has come and gone and we get the usual reports of the shopping madness that has become customary. This year thankfully there do not seem to have been any actual deaths caused by crowds stampeding to get items, though shoppers at one place did ignore or step over a dying elderly man on the floor. (Incidentally, Kevin Drum says that ‘Black Friday’ got its name for darker reasons than the one that business public relations flacks have managed to foist on the public.)

But there have been shootings as people tried to rob shoppers of their purchases. There were also reports of riots in which police were called to quell unruly crowds and used the now-ubiquitous pepper sprays to disperse them. The report below also said that police picked up and slammed a grandfather to the ground in a store, thinking that he was a shoplifter. Why is such force necessary, even if their suspicions turned out to be correct?

Black Friday Brawl at Buckeye Walmart: MyFoxPHOENIX.com

A disturbing escalation was that of a shopper who, probably inspired by recent police actions, brought her own pepper spray and used it to disable her competitors for Xboxes and other high-demand items. She apparently escaped with her spoils but later turned herself in. Given the mentality of such shoppers, I worry that next year more people will copy her example or even escalate it, maybe bringing truncheons to fend off rivals or use tear gas and even tasers.

I have been trying to understand the mentality of these shopping melees. I can understand people in war-ravaged or famine-stricken areas rioting to get at meager relief supplies of food and water. But an Xbox is without doubt a luxury item, not a necessity, however much people may desire one. I have no idea how much an Xbox costs or what the sale price was but I find it hard to imagine that it was the size of the savings that drove someone to actually pepper spray her fellow human beings. After all, look at the scene below where people fought each other to get waffle irons that were on sale for $2. It is bizarre to think that people are willing to forego elementary courtesy and consideration towards others for waffle irons.

I blame reality TV for this development. I think what we are seeing is people shopping as if it were some kind of reality show of the kind seen on TV with themselves as contestants and in which the prizes are the goods on sale. The winners are those who snag the best deals and can then boast to their friends about it. And just like the shows, people are encouraged to do whatever it takes to ‘win’. One person reinforced this view by going so far as to describe the pepper-spraying woman as a ‘competitive shopper’, a benign euphemism for a person with a mean attitude to life.

The stores and the media feed this mentality, relentlessly hyping their sales with their publicity about the limited numbers at low prices and midnight store openings and the like, all contributing to a race-like mentality. Apparently after Walmart opened its stores at 10 pm on Thanksgiving, the sales in various sectors of the store begin at different times, with the items kept in pallets covered in plastic that are then removed at the sale time. It does not take a genius to predict that this will cause trouble as crowds of shoppers cluster around the pallets, salivating as they wait for the bell or whistle or whatever that signals that the race has begun.

On the one hand, one can dismiss this as the aberrations of a few people who have lost their sense of proportion. And as long as the numbers remain small, we can perhaps ignore it. But I worry about what the increasing numbers of people who are willing to shove aside, trample, and pepper spray their fellows in order to get at merchandise that they could well do without tells us about ourselves. It is not a good sign when the social fabric of concern for their fellow beings is torn apart in the desire to get some bauble.

I have little sympathy for those people who are choosing to subject themselves to bodily harm and insults to their dignity in this way. The people I feel sorry for are the low-level store workers who have no choice but to be there and risk getting hurt in the scrums. Because the stores are opening at midnight on Thanksgiving or, in the case of Walmart, even earlier, these workers do not get to enjoy the holiday. In these hard times, some may welcome the opportunity to get extra hours of work at overtime rates (at least I hope they get that) but I am sure there are many who would much rather forego that to spend a quiet holiday with their loved ones. There is even a petition to the Target department store company to ‘save Thanksgiving’ by not having these midnight openings.

I hope it catches on.

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