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Akst: The blues on Black Friday

There’s freedom in knowing nobody is reading today’s column. I might not even spell-check.

You’re not reading this (closely, anyway) because you’re either nursing a wicked L-tryptophan hangover or are steeling yourself for the annual, extreme bloodsport event we call Black Friday.

Black Friday’s origin is misleading. People think it means profitability, a reference to the age-old accounting practice of recording profits in black and losses in red.

But ABC News offers a definition closer to reality.

The Philadelphia Police Department coined the phrase the day after Thanksgiving in 1966 because they “hated the day – massive traffic jams, overcrowded sidewalks, lots of shoplifters – all because downtown Philly stores were filled with shoppers taking advantage of the first holiday sales. The goal was to make it a day that shoppers wanted to avoid.”

Ironic, that.

The New York Times said last year that workers and shoppers were bitter that major retailers had begun opening at midnight Thanksgiving, just a few hours after the family get-together. Thanksgiving, they said, should be for family and downtime.

That got the attention of retailers, known for their nurturing and empathy.

So empathetic are retailers, in fact, that their take-away from last year was to decide to cut into family time even further this year by opening earlier on Thanksgiving.

All the cool kids are doing it. Walmart, Target, Kohl’s, Best Buy, Sears and Kmart (just to name a few) were open on Thanksgiving. In fairness, some workers do earn extra money working the holiday.

The interesting (by “interesting,” I mean “evil”) thing is that Black Friday deals are not necessarily the best. The Huffington Post noted in October (citing information from Decide Inc., a consumer price research firm), that “Many of the holiday’s most popular gifts – ranging from flat-screened TVs to stuffed animals – are not sold at their lowest price on Black Friday. In fact, many items are cheaper at other times during the year.”

Decide Inc. found LCD TVs for about $200 cheaper in October, and said women looking for UGG Boots in September or October “paid around $85 whereas Black Friday bargain hunters paid about $136 – 59 percent more.”

But, Black Friday is serious money in an economy based on consumer spending.

Last year, the National Retail Federation said 226 million shoppers spent $52 billion during Black Friday weekend, breaking records for the number of shoppers and how much they spent. The average customer spent $398 in 2011, up from $365 in 2010.

Which underscores a critical flaw of the American economy: We bank far too heavily on consumerism over a very short period of time.

So, a couple thoughts on coping with Black Friday (if you have the day off):

1. Don’t shop. The world won’t end, despite what the news media says.

2. Take a nap. Most Americans are sleep-deprived.

3. Skip major retailers for cool, friendly local stores, like Moxie or Cracker Jax in DeKalb. For appliances, check out Paulsen Appliance and Electronics in Sycamore, and then treat yourself to homemade candy at The Confectionary.

4. Show compassion, particularly for store workers. I tossed some quiz points to students this week in exchange for their thoughts on Black Friday. Many shop with their families and it is quality time, but the comment that grabbed my attention was:

“I actually get yelled at by customers as I’m walking into work on Black Friday because they think that I’m sneaking [in] early to get stuff before them.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. Contact him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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