Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Black Friday That Wasn’t


I hate shopping.  Whenever I exchange my money for products or services, I feel a stab of defeat.  The value I place on my belongings grows in proportion to their age—that is, to how well I’ve managed to amortize their original cost.  Of course we all seek to get the best value for our dollar, but I have a bigger goal, which is to never spend anything and forever make do with what I already have.  I’m a retailer’s worst nightmare.

I also dislike crowds, holiday lotion snipers, displays of retail abandon, and above all Christmas music.  And yet, I ventured out to Best Buy on Black Friday to buy my mom a new computer.  Not my cup of tea, but I had a rare opportunity:  my brother Bryan and I were both visiting our mom in Oregon (which doesn’t happen that often); Bryan knows more about computers than I do; and getting a Black Friday discount on a big-ticket item like a computer is worth some suffering.

Plus, I must confess, I saw a silver lining to the horridness of the outing:  I could blog about how bad it was.  You know, kind of a Heart of Darkness thing.  That’s something I like about being a blogger:  when something bad happens to me, at least it stimulates my creative juices and I can often get an interesting post out of it, and when something really bad happens to me, I might get several interesting posts out of it.

As it turns out, and as you knew already, Black Friday was a bust this year.  In this post I examine what the failure of Black Friday means to America; describe my non-horrid (but still somewhat remarkable) trip to Best Buy; and lay out my novel strategy for increasing the success of Black Friday.

 Who cares about Black Friday?

When you think about it, it’s kind of weird that, our own shopping aside, the success or failure of Black Friday is a guaranteed source of “news.”  Every year, the sales numbers for this made-up retail event are as widely reported as the outcome of football games.  And yet outside of our own shopping, why should we care what other people did on their day off?

The answer, of course, is that Black Friday is widely (though not universally) regarded  as a measure of consumer confidence, which is a yardstick by which we measure the health of our economy, and in turn the state of the nation.

I’m not at all sure any of this makes sense.  Why should we measure the health of our nation by how recklessly we spend our money, on this one arbitrarily declared day, on stupid gifts that probably won’t delight our family and friends nearly as much as we hope?  If that set of four Harvest Pumpkin soup tureens were actually a worthwhile product, you’ve have bought it for yourself.  Holiday shopping is all about retailers playing us for suckers and I can’t see how their success validates the health of the nation.

Why put any stock in consumer confidence to begin with?  How many Americans actually understand their own finances, much less the intricacies of the overall global economy?  Besides, there’s evidence to show that being confident doesn’t necessarily lead to good outcomes.  American students lead the world in confidence, even while their academic performance is sub-par.

Some suggest that the poor Black Friday numbers could actually be good thing, like this Nasdaq writer who theorizes that, because the economy has improved, people are no longer desperate enough to tolerate massive crowds just to save money.  Prosperity aside, I’d be more optimistic about our nation if journalists like this guy used better grammar:  “More than 6 million less people than expected actually went out and shopped” makes me cringe.  (Just in case you missed it, it should have read “More than 6 million fewer people…” or, even better, “Over 6 million fewer people,” though I would also gladly accept “over 6 million lesser people” though that does alter the meaning somewhat.)

Cyber Monday, meanwhile, was bigger than ever.  This reassured a lot of people that the nation is still healthy.  I’d like to think this means Americans are getting more introverted.  But actually it’s probably got more to do with laziness and just wanting everything shipped to us.

Oddly, what I would consider the greatest factor leading to Black Friday’s dismal performance is something almost nobody reported on:  Adult Thursday.  Maybe you haven’t heard of this one; it made its debut this year.  On Adult Thursday (yes, Thanksgiving Day itself), adult websites offer steep discounts and (probably more importantly) a suspension of tracking cookies, so lustful men can save a few bucks while enjoying greater anonymity.

Is Adult Thursday a good thing?  Well, I’m torn.  On the plus side, it shows the same American ingenuity that produced the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (“Hey, men love sports, but also babes—let’s give ‘em both!”).  Not since feasting on Thanksgiving was paired with watching football have we seen this kind of clever alignment; by indulging licentiousness as well, we’ve hit the trifecta!  On the negative side, I’m repulsed by the notion of would-be shoppers being too glutted on dopamine to leave the house on Friday.

(No, Adult Thursday isn’t a real thing … at least not until this post goes viral and causes life to imitate art.)

My trip to Best Buy

My wife thought I was crazy to brave Best Buy on Black Friday, until she grasped that I was sacrificing my own emotional health for my writing.  (Like me, she has had too charmed a life to be a great writer; happiness is like a consolation prize.)  But as it turned out, the dreadful hordes never showed up.  The place was less crowded than our local Target on any given day.  I found a parking spot right away.

I also got plenty of attention from the Best Buy customer service associates.  Too much, actually, since their input is practically worthless.  I’ve read articles lamenting how online giants like Amazon are eating the lunch of brick-and-mortar chains like Best Buy, but I have no sympathy.  I can get gobs of info on products by shopping online, but almost no info in the store despite the best efforts of earnest but hapless salespeople.

“I’m looking for a very basic PC for my mom,” I told the guy.  “She doesn’t want a touch-screen and doesn’t need a lot of CPU or memory.  But she is brand-conscious and will want something that looks good.”  So the guy lead me to an Acer computer.  An Acer?  Wasn’t he listening to me?  I told him, “Look, Acer is a terrible knockoff brand that neither gets nor deserves any respect, and this chintzy, shiny PC you’re showing me looks like something that was extruded from an industrial robot’s rectum.”

No, of course I didn’t really say that.  I just said, “I’m not really into Acers.”  Even this seemed to hurt the guy’s feelings and he only mumbled from this point forward, which was fine, since he knew nothing that wasn’t printed on the little placards stuck to the shelves (i.e., almost nothing at all). 

Meanwhile, I didn’t see any “SALE!” tags anywhere.  This amazed me.  I thought the whole point of Black Friday was creating a feeding frenzy, via steep discounts, that enabled a merchant to make big-time money through volume, not margin.  I really did say to the salesman, “I’m a little surprised not to see more discounts.  I thought this would be a giant discount extravaganza.”  He said, “Oh, lots of things are on sale … it’s just that the original prices aren’t shown.”  Well, no wonder Best Buy is hurting!  They don’t know the first rule of merchandizing, which is to draw maximum attention to how much the shopper will save.  (Needless to say, Best Buy also hasn’t grasped the second rule of merchandising, which is that you should artificially inflate the price of everything just so you can “discount” it without actually lowering margins.)

Now, as I see it, every salesman’s job is to remove my self-doubt and convince me that the product I’m looking at really is a good one, suits my needs, and is a good value.  The perfect pitch for the PC I ended up buying would go something like this:  “Well, it’s a great piece of luck that your mom doesn’t need a touch screen, because check out this little HP number over here.  It’s a real thoroughbred, with an industry-leading Intel i5 processor, gobs of RAM, an HD+ display, and BeatsAudio—and yet for some reason they spec’d it without a touch-screen.”  Here he would lower his voice a little and lean in to give me the inside scoop:  “It’s crazy.  I even talked to the distributor and said, ‘How can they not put a touch-screen on such a sweet machine?’  He said, ‘I know, it’s killing us, it’s why we had to price these bad boys at only $500.’  So yeah, they’re practically losing money on this model to begin with.  But you know how people are, they gotta have their touch-screens, and so this model still wasn’t moving, which is why we’re having to discount it another $100 today.  For somebody who wants top performance but doesn’t demand a touch-screen, well, this is a marriage in heaven!”  BOOM—I’d be sold.  But instead the guy said nothing.  He just stood there, hopefully, like a wallflower at a prom.  It was almost embarrassing.

Bryan and I were discussing the merits of this laptop when an older couple happened to decide on the same one, and asked the salesman to fetch one for them from the warehouse.  “Hey, you know what?” I said to him.  “Make that two of them.”  The couple, who looked like the kind of rural Oregonians whose kids call them “Ma” and “Pa,” looked at us in surprise.  I said, “You guys look like you know what you’re doing, so if this PC is good enough for you, well, it’s good enough for me.”  The woman demurred, saying, “Well, my husband chose it, and he doesn’t know that much,” but I think they were both pretty chuffed.  See?  Wherever I go, I try to spread joy.

There was no line at the point of sale.  I asked the cashier how sales were, and he said, “Been here since midnight.”  I thought that was a pretty safe response—upbeat, but noncommittal.  But it was pretty clear their Black Friday wasn’t going gangbusters.

How to reinvigorate Black Friday

Odd though it might seem, I may just be the perfect person to provide a strategy for making future Black Fridays more successful.  After all, it’s people like me who, by staying home, ruin everything.  I have a proposal that would probably make a big difference.

My strategy is based on sexism.  If you think sexism is a bad basis for anything, I hope you’re highly outspoken about the ridiculous tradition of men watching football on Thanksgiving while the women cook.  Myself, I’m not bothered by it because convincing people to buy a lot of crap they don’t need isn’t exactly a noble enterprise to begin with.

So, where men’s purchases are concerned, I think brick-and-mortar stores need to get away from providing product information, period.  There’s just no way a low-paid clerk is going to compete with the vast troves of information provided by e-commerce sites, available to shoppers via their smartphones.  Men do like to look at products in person, and heft them, but that’s about all the extra info they need.  So don’t waste money on clerks who can’t help with products that basically sell themselves.  (Oddly, Best Buy actually hampered this process, by locking down the configuration of their display computers so shoppers like my brother and me couldn’t glean info about the PC from the PC itself.)

Purveyors of hi-tech stuff should take the money they save through these workforce reductions and put it toward free manicures on Black Friday.  That way, women will actually encourage their men to take them shopping at places like Best Buy, and the men will have as long as they want to play with the computers and such.  And when it’s time for the man to spend more than he and his significant other had agreed on, at least she’ll be in a good mood.   (And yes, he will be buying stuff for himself, as opposed to buying gifts like he’s supposed to.  This behavior is established fact.)

The real Black Friday players should be clothing stores; they have the edge over e-commerce websites to begin with, since nobody buys clothing without petting it first and trying it on.  These stores should run a one-day promotion where every men’s garment purchased automatically adds value—say, 20% of the purchase amount—to a gift card that only his significant other can use, and only on a later visit.

Why would this be successful?  Well, women normally like to shop for clothes without their men around.  That way they avoid his scrutiny—“What?!  Eighty bucks for a t-shirt?!”—and don’t feel rushed.  Men, meanwhile, seldom shop for clothes at all, not just because clothes are boring but because of the male’s deep-seated fear that he’ll get disoriented and end up browsing in the women’s section by mistake.  The gift card would incentivize women to take their men clothing shopping for a change.  The man will be more confident with his selection if she likes it, and once he’s bored he’ll readily buy pretty much whatever she tells him to, just to get the whole thing over with.  Imagine a Black Friday where foot traffic is not only increased, in these Cyber-Monday-proof environments, but where purchases are consummated boldly and swiftly, with zero need for extra salespeople.

I’m not just guessing about all this!  My own track record proves this approach would work.  I’ve only been clothing shopping twice this year, and both times it was at my wife’s urging.  Both times, I bought stuff on the sole basis of her liking it.  Both times, I feel I greatly overpaid.  In terms of the health of our economy, all this is good news.  After all, a defeat for the likes of me is a big win for the Retail Industrial Complex!

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