Retailers across the United States decided, in part because of the shortened holiday shopping season, to open their stores on Thanksgiving Thursday. Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland area were no exceptions. While some were protesting in Cleveland, shoppers in Ashtabula were at the local Wal-Mart and Super K-Mart searching for bargains.
As part of a larger, nationwide effort, protestors in Cleveland used the traditional kick-off to the holiday shopping season to call attention to the wages paid to Wal-Mart employees. In spite of the information dissemination attempts by protestors, the cash registers at Wal-Marts were not silenced. Seventy-five miles further northeast, residents in Ashtabula County reportedly went in droves to Wal-Mart and the nearby Super K-Mart at the Towne Square Mall (previously, the Ashtabula Mall).
Sociologically speaking, the opening of retail stores on what has been a traditional family holiday is clearly indicative of a not only a consumer-oriented society, but of Thorsten Veblen’s notion of “conspicuous consumption”. While some shoppers may have been searching for the perfect holiday gift, it is also true that other shoppers were purchasing “bargains” for themselves. First off, conspicuous consumption refers to the purchase of items to enhance one’s sense of self through material goods; it is “impression management” (see Goffman) by which a person attempts to acquire and display social class and prestige. For those who wish to have the largest television set, the most recent iPod or Kindle, or the newest game in their own homes at the holiday, retailers are luring customers in with low promotional prices.
On the other side of the economic ladder are those who go out shopping on Black Friday – or now on Thanksgiving – because they want to gift-give to their children and loved ones. They may feel that their options are limited due to shrinking purchasing power and feel compelled to shop when retail prices are at their presumed lowest. Those who can least afford luxury items, or simple gift items, are likewise ensnarled in a consumer mentality – that to be happy, one must own “things”.
While some shoppers seek to acquire items to publically enjoy them and others seek to be seen as capable providers, there is a third group of off-hour shoppers. These others may suffer from a need to purchase items as a way to fulfill a psychological need. In the literature of compulsive shoppers, one may find trophy shoppers, bargain shoppers and image shoppers. “Compulsive shoppers”, or those who are said to have a “shopping addiction”, are thrust into the middle of a battle: on the one hand is a psychological need to acquire objects while on the other hand, is a society encouraging the acquisition of goods.
Similar in many respects to offering “happy hour” prices at the local tavern to the town alcoholic who has been trying to avoid temptation, “Black Friday” represents the socially acceptable opportunity to engage in “binge shopping”. At any other time of year, a person who proclaimed they wanted to get up at 3 a.m. in order to be at a store by 4 a.m. and wait in a line outside a store until it opened at 6 a.m. would be met with a look of astonishment or disgust. At any other time of year, a person who waited in line for the simple opportunity to be “eligible” to purchase an item of limited supply would be met with incredulity. With retailers creating a “Gray Thursday” by which shopping for the holidays begins on a traditional family holiday, the message is loud and clear – with the scoreboard reading “Retailer 1, Family 0”.