LOOKING at their festive ads, with their cutesy soft toys in search of a soulmate and family reunions against all odds, you would think supermarkets existed solely for the purpose of spreading harmony and Christmas shopping was a benign activity motivated by altruism.
In the fantasy world conjured up by the retailers, Santa is always jolly, children are always grateful and everyone agrees that giving is better than receiving, especially when it’s done across enemy lines.
Last week, however, the soft focus filter was removed and – lo – it did turn out that everyone was as money-grabbing and avaricious as ever; more so, thanks to the latest transatlantic import – Black Friday, a post-Thanksgiving day of mega online and in-store reductions. As the prospect of mass savings addled people’s minds – until they believed a cut-price Dyson was worth throwing a stranger in front of a moving trolley for – it became clear that far from playing the pipes of peace, stores such as Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s were stoking the fires of consumerism; and that they couldn’t organise a détente in a roomful of conscientious objectors, never mind a truce in No Man’s Land.
In truth, the festive spirit had already begun to wane with reports that Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s Magical Journey Experience near Birmingham was less a winter wonderland than a boot camp for elves with behavioural difficulties. According to visitors, the snow was scrunched-up litter, the reindeer mangy and the Father Christmas(es) modelled more on Billy Bob Thornton than the jolly plump figure of A Visit From St Nicholas fame. The fact some of the Santas appeared to have been enjoying a festive tipple, and an elf allegedly told a customer to “have a shit Christmas”, might almost lead one to suspect the whole exercise was not about transporting children to an enchanted world, but making a quick buck from their gullible parents.
This display of cynicism, however, was as nought compared to the all-out war that broke out in supermarket aisles a few days later. As Black Friday – a long-standing tradition in the US – took off over here, we saw scenes of near-rioting that would have shamed starving survivors in a post-apocalyptic landscape, never mind people who had taken a few hours out of their day in the hopes of snapping up a bargain.
Police were called to several Scottish stores – including Tesco at Silverburn in Glasgow – as shoppers stampeded through the front doors at midnight and engaged in hand-to-hand combat over plasma TVs the size of a football pitch. Punches were thrown and goods rent in two as customers decided they’d rather see them destroyed than yield them to their rival. Meanwhile, websites such as Amazon, which were also offering Black Friday deals, crashed under the weight of demand.
It is an indictment of society, I guess, but one that is actively fuelled by the retailers’ marketing strategy as opposed to being merely a by-product of their offers. The way they promote Black Friday – the hype they generate, the scarcity they manufacture – is designed to ramp up demand and pitch person against person in pursuit of a limited number of goods. It is as if some reality TV impresario has cross-bred The Hunger Games with Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, and that somewhere, off camera, an evil gamesmaster is orchestrating events to ensure maximum conflict and chaos. So volatile has the ritual become in the US, stores are advised to post guards on their entrances and keep an eye on any objects that could be used as missiles.
My objection to Black Friday is not just that it plays to the worst in human nature at a time when we are supposed to be celebrating the best, but that it is unfair: to the low-paid employees who have to work extra hours (in the US many of them are forced to come in on Thanksgiving); to the police who have to restore order, and to consumers who are being manipulated to part with their cash. It’s exploitative and it’s bad for the collective soul.
Worse still, research conducted in the US suggests shopping on Black Friday doesn’t actually save shoppers very much money. Instead, the event is a sleight of hand, with prices set artificially high, to give the illusion they have been slashed. In fact, lower prices may be found closer to Christmas when shops are trying to shift the last of their stock. On the plus side, Black Friday does seem to stimulate the economy at a time when retailers are struggling. And in the US it is now being used as a focus for protests to improve workers’ rights.
Perhaps – given that the significance of our Boxing Day sales has diminished since shops started discounting before 25 December – we shouldn’t be too po-faced about a stunt to encourage people to part with their cash. It’s not as if Christmas shopping was ever much fun. It always started with 20 minutes cruising the car park in a desperate hunt for a space and ended with buying an electric foot spa because you had lost all sense of perspective. Still, as you look at the picture of a woman lying flat-out across a television, while two teenagers try to wrestle it away from her, you do kind of yearn for the atmosphere of a traditional market and wonder if this is the best we can do. No-one really expects the shiny-faced camaraderie of the supermarket ads. It would just be nice to know you could buy your gifts without getting your head panned in. «