Good Stuff

Reading selection from “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” by Caitlin Kelly

Good Stuff

My husband and I have good friends with whom we have spent many just before the real holiday(s):  last weekend, a few days before Thanksgiving. Sometimes at one or another’s home for our own shared turkey and fixings, this year at a local pub over massive, over-salted burgers and shepherd pies.

As is their tradition, they would be driving Wednesday afternoon to North Carolina to be with her family, typically a large gathering around the table, 14 or so. This is one of the only days of the year, she has told me, when they could be sure everyone would have off.

But her brother would be absent against his will. No, he was not incarcerated, imprisoned in the usual sense. He was, however, as an assistant manager of a Wal- Mart store, forced to work late Wednesday night and then go in time to prepare for the 8 pm Thanksgiving evening early “Black Friday.” His wife, who works two part-time jobs, and their kids would still be coming. It just was too much for him to do the same.

The pressure on him was great to toe the line. Like thousands of other retail workers, managers and sales associates alike, he had lost his job during the Great Recession, and had worked a few other punishing jobs before getting this one. He felt he could not afford to object. And he figured that most other folks in his field were in the same position this year. While much of the attention in the media had been on Wal-Mart for this perhaps “new normal” , Thanksgiving  Black Thursday replacing Black Friday as the mad rush of super bargain hunting,  other major chains like Big Lots, Sears,  Target and K Mart also opened for big business that day, some as early as 6 am.

And drugstores like Walgreens and CVS that may have been open in previous years to make sure there was a place to get emergency prescriptions filled or perhaps a quart of milk, had their own door busters- Android tablets and two for one toys.

Even high end merchandisers weighed in, Tiffany’s running an ad in the New York Times that morning saying it would still be closed because “like you, we have birds to roast and thanks to toast,” On the next page, on the other hand, Lord and Taylor’s let readers know that if they had a little time before the turkey, they would be open beginning at 10 a.m.

Black Friday is the name given to the day following Thanksgiving as the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Some say the name originated in Philadelphia  in 1961,where it was used to describe the heavy and disruptive vehicle traffic due to the volume of shoppers, many of whom were given a day off. It was only later that we began to use the explanation that this was the first day of the year when retailers began to turn a profit, or be in “ in the black.”

For many years it was common for stores to open at 6 a.m. that morning, luring shoppers in with loss leader items, and a limited quantity at that. But in the late 2000s, many had crept to 5 or even 4 am. Last year, a few retailers opened at midnight for the first time.

Why the shift from Friday to Thursday for what market researchers are calling  the Christmas Crush, turning the traditionally busiest shopping day of the year into a two –day affair? We were told that the new Thanksgiving hours were an effort by brick and mortar stores to make shopping more convenient, giving another option to shoppers who might prefer to head to stores after their turkey dinner rather than braving the crowds so early the next morning. They expected that around 17 percent of shoppers would take advantage of the chance to get out ahead of the slackers who were finishing pumpkin pie or getting some rest.

But others have admitted that the uncertain economy, the package of increases and spending cuts known as the ”fiscal cliff” up on the horizon in January, has made it critical to their survival that consumers spend early and often this holiday, getting those cash registers ringing as soon as they could. Even marketing pundits aren’t sure if a political stalemate could cause shoppers to put away their wallets before the impasse remains and the clock runs out on Congress.

And early they did this year. In some swing state areas of the country, it was a draw between the snarky campaign ads that ran every few minutes and the frenetic holiday merchandise ads that shared the same airspace, beginning in late October.

(I was in Massachusetts, the media market for New Hampshire, the week before the election in a hotel with flat screen televisions affixed to every wall, and I can testify to the competing blare). I can’t tell you which were more annoying.

One particularly clever advertising ploy this year was to re-label this holiday, instead of being, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln “ a  national day of Thanksgiving and praise,” founded in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, it is now “all about family, food, football and shopping.” Shopping for 4th generation IPod Touch, Wii U Deluxe systems, Dyson  upright vacuums, even Christian tablet E- Readers, and In Jesus We Trust coffee mugs.

Ironically, the one place that this Thanksgiving Day shopping rite could not take place was in the heart of New England, including Plymouth Massachusetts where the pilgrims first gave thanks in 1621 for their harvest and their survival. Colonial-era “blue laws” still on the books, put down by early settlers to enforce proper behavior on Sundays, also prevent retailers from opening their doors the fourth Thursday of November. This was considered an equal sacrilege.

A few days before this marker Black Thanksgiving Day, there began to be some push back; unions, including Warehouse Workers United, asking people to refrain from shopping that day, and opinion writers, including Salon columnist Lorraine Berry who declared that she wasn’t blaming corporations for “ the consumer forces that warped our national holiday.” She wrote:  I blame us.

We are the ones who come out and shop, she observed, so we can save $10 on a piece of plastic crap, or bring home another piece of technology we think will make our lives easier.”

On Thursday and again on Friday, there were some protests by Wal-Mart workers and supporters nationwide, using the publicity that surrounded the decision to open on the holiday, requiring workers to cut their time with families short, to also criticize the wages, benefits, and treatment of the employees of the world’s largest retailers. In one store here in Atlanta, an SUV driver nudged a group of picketers on the way into the parking lot. Thankfully no one was hurt.

But their efforts did little to keep shoppers away and there were record holiday sales.

And one newspaper reported that despite an outcry from some employees, both stores and shoppers seemed to like it. Some people went shopping with a full belly, going straight from the dinner table to the stores. Others slept off their big meal and went to the malls before daybreak on Friday.

“I ate my dinner and came right here,’ said a student in New York City, who bought a 50 inch Television at Target when it opened at 9 p.m. and then went home to snack on the leftovers.

Like 75 percent of all shoppers that night and the next day, he was buying only for himself.  No presents to wrap or stocking stuffers.

Shoppers who set up rented tents in parking lots overnight in efforts to score two flat screen televisions and a DVD player. Shoppers who used new apps, such as store maps with the precise location of sale items and how to find their car in the mall lot. Shoppers like my own pregnant daughter, who stayed up all night on Thanksgiving to go with friends to the retail outlet center, buying some clothes and accessories, figuring that this is the last time in many years she will be able to do this, what with a baby coming.

Shoppers who endured freezing temperatures standing in line in places like Eagan Minnesota to collect vouchers for laptops and other techno wonders. Shoppers like one woman who told a worker standing near the exit of a Sam’s Club that she didn’t even want the 40 inch Sanyo LED TV on her cart. She had come for a particular smart phone, but did not snag one before they disappeared minutes after opening.

I didn’t even want it, she said.

Which leads to my own confession that I participated once in the Black Friday, when it was still on Friday morning anyway, heading out with my oldest son at three in the morning a few years back to a nearby Best Buy and the shopping center across the road, in search of deep discounts.

We were in line an hour or so before the stores opened. It was very cold. I stayed in the car part of the time, while my son chatted with the other early birds, while vying for the same computer and camera that he was hoping to score. I for once had no particular shopping agenda, just a chance to spend some mom time with an adult child, and have a cultural experience that might feed my curiosity. (and end up in a sermon someday).

He didn’t get what he wanted, but bought a few things for himself anyway. I purchased a spyware program I really didn’t need and have never installed, because the price was so good, and a black leather jacket at the mall, which I could have paid half as much for in January.

The best part was the breakfast afterward, and going home to a warm bed.

All of this craziness, this opening the earliest, cutting prices the most  consumerism might lead one to agree with the writer who is waiting for the day when we are freed up from all “things”, and implores us not to spend our lives collecting material objects, that after all turn to dust and ashes.

Which they don’t by the way. They do endure and they do matter. A British Museum exhibit last year, a project so audacious that it took 100 curators to complete it, had the goal of telling the history of the world in 100 objects. The creators of this extraordinary collection and the book that followed,  argued that we find the concerns and aspirations of a people, not just in writing but in things: mummies and  ceremonial spears , battle helmets, and Buddha heads, yes. But/and also in decorative vases, crystal, and jade rings—often given as gifts.

And while this Black Thursday and Black Friday frenzy is by most accounts not in the spirit of a family centered day of peace and good will, the custom of giving Christmas gifts has ancient roots, as much a part of the holiday as any of the other traditions. The practice of gift-giving at the beginning of winter traces back to ancient Rome where there were celebrations to honor Saturn, their harvest God, and Mithras, the God of Light.

Of course there is the story of the gifts from the three wise men, or Magi, who brought the new born baby Jesus:  gold for a king, incense, a gift for a priest, and myrrh, a burial ointment for one who would die. Bars of gold-flecked, incense smelling soap are sold in tourist shops in Israel even to this day.

And the fourth century story of St. Nicholas, a Bishop in Asia Minor, who was known to give treats and small presents to children, the St. Nicholas who evolved into the magic Santa Claus of today. By the 10th century it is believed that the gift giving custom started by St. Nicholas was widely practiced, with homemade foods, sweets (especially rare oranges) and handicrafts.

The industrial revolution brought a shift from homemade to manufactured Christmas gifts, along with it the advent of advertising, which by the 1840’s was an imbedded part of the holiday. So gifts as commerce and the marketing that goes with it is not new. Going back more than 150 years there have been things to buy in stores to wrap in gift paper and give as presents, and efforts to convince us what gifts we should buy.

There is the school of gift-giving as taught by the late actress Ruth Gordon, who when asked what her rule was for buying presents, answered “ mine is – would I  like it I don’t know if
anyone else likes, but if I like it, it is at least something.”

Tongue in cheek or otherwise, our etiquette gurus, Miss Manners for example, or the late Emily Post, would take issue. Gift-giving they would say, is a true art. You need to understand the person to whom you intend to give the gift. You need to know what they truly want.

The presents we exchange on holidays like Christmas may not be spiritual gifts, but they can reflect a spirituality of giving, if spiritual growth indeed involves seeing the other and being seen authentically. I would propose that this sometimes means a gift of membership in a botanical garden, or a pass to a state park or a contribution to a favorite non-profit, if this best reflects the person being given to. It might well be a crocheted snowflake for the tree, or a favorite jam, or a photo of a grandchild in a dollar store frame.

It may also be something purchased at a small local store, or online, or in a mall: something quite material, something precious, something frivolous or something inexpensive and bound to break.

A spirituality of truly being known, being understood.

Random gifts over time: as a child I remember getting a stuffed animal dog I named Mugsy, who was mine alone in a household where our real pet dog was shared by five other people. I remember receiving my first almost grown-up hardcover book, a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.

One of you told me also recalled getting books, especially when inscribed by the giver, in particular a copy of A Christmas Carol, given by your mother, now read every year.

Another of you shared that your grandma gave your cousin a baby doll for Christmas after months of him begging for one and his father refusing because” boys don’t play with dolls.” This gift is one of your favorite memories, now that your grandmother has passed away.

It could have been or might be a velveteen rabbit or a Tiny Tears doll, or a hand-built playhouse.

It might have been or could still be a new engagement ring to replace one after the stone was lost from the original one, or a diamond engagement ring, after 20 years of marriage. Or a scarf knitted by a daughter in the 8th grade with whom you were fighting most of the time.

It could be a personally copied blues and ethnic music CD from a broke college student or Firefly and Battlestar Galactica sets chosen with care, sent very long distance from Amazon.

This year it might well be a Darth Vader Mr. Potato Head or a Monster Skultimate Roller Maze Doll

Being seen, understood, authentically known.

Gifts well chosen can heal. Gifts carelessly chosen can hurt. My father had many wives and girl friends, even into his eighties. I can remember receiving a make-up kit, you know the kind with maybe a dozen different eye shadow colors and assorted lipsticks and rouges. I was in my early 20’s and elated when I opened that gift, feeling that my father had moved past childhood and teen year presents into a more appropriate and kind of glamorous gift. It was a few years before I realized that this special gift was the freebie that must have come with a bottle of cologne he had given his current love interest.

He also had the habit of  at first visiting and later just calling a jeweler ,where he would select or have selected the same piece of jewelry for all the women in his life: current wife, former girlfriend, daughters in law, daughter, granddaughter, and somehow didn’t expect we would know this.

Always in the same gray boxes, sometimes the piece of jewelry would suit one or another of us—a freshwater pearl necklace or a simple pair of gold hoops. Other times it wouldn’t— a clunky bracelet, or one year a miniature alarm clock.

The best present I ever got from him, this following a period of actually spending time together, driving around North Georgia, visiting his favorite places to watch birds or eating at a meat and three, was the year he bought me a handmade, wedding ring quilt from one of the shops we had found, and had it hung over our bed on Christmas morning. It was mine uniquely and a memory to share.

Sometimes it means gifting ourselves, with humor and grace as in the one holiday season one of you knew you were going to be alone: between relationships, no travel money, not a good period in your relationship with your parents, so in October you went shopping for yourself, got home, wrapped the presents and put them away. The week before Christmas, you brought them out and put them under this tiny tree. Xmas morning, you opened them and were very surprised at what you had gotten yourself – you didn’t remember all of them. The best part, you said, was the dog and the cat helping you open them. A Christmas you truly cherished – nurturing yourself.

My ministerial colleague, retired Presbyterian minister Joanna Adams, wrote a guest column this week about Black Friday 2012 and her love, still, of shopping for gifts to give.

In it, she wrote ‘that it is tempting to decry the consumerism and materialism… true the love of things and an obsession with having more are the roots of human misery. You could even call it idolatry of sorts… Gifts are really good. They pack a four-fold whammy. There is the pleasure of receiving a gift and the gratitude it evokes in the heart of the receiver. And then there is the happiness that comes from giving the gift and the delight engendered by seeing someone who delights in what has been given.”

Let’s hear it for Good Stuff, and let the gifting begin.