The desperation of Black Friday

Sales numbers may have broken records, but a Wal-Mart waffle-maker riot warns against optimism

Published November 28, 2011 6:30PM (EST)

Shoppers wait in line for a Framingham, Mass., Target store to open on  "Black Friday."      (Reuters/Adam Hunger)
Shoppers wait in line for a Framingham, Mass., Target store to open on "Black Friday." (Reuters/Adam Hunger)

If we are willing to believe the preliminary reports from retailers, Black Friday was a resounding success. Shoppers swarmed stores, both online and off, to take advantage of midnight sales and huge discounts. For those predisposed to seek omens for the future from the entrails of this carnage, there is an obvious temptation for hopeful optimism. The Christmas shopping season may have started off with a record bang -- could our long national economic quagmire be over?

But before attempting to answer that question in any detail, let's review the video from a Wal-Mart near Little Rock, Ark., in which shoppers exploded into what can only be called a riot as they shoved each other out of the way in a frenzy to grab $2 waffle-makers.

That is not a portrait of healthy economic activity. That is desperation, pure and simple. The story of the woman who sprayed her fellow Xbox shoppers with pepper spray is bad enough, but nothing quite captures what's wrong with Black Friday better than this Lord of the Flies-style barbaric waffle-maker anarchy.

For the economy in general, it's probably a good thing to register sales numbers on Black Friday that show growth over last year. But that certainly doesn't mean that happy days are here again, or even that we're headed for a bang-up Christmas season. When shoppers are so desperate to take advantage of sales that they line up at midnight on Thanksgiving, that's not a sign that Keynesian animal spirits are ready to rock and roll, but instead is yet more proof that money is tight, and Americans are stretching every dollar to the max.

It seems quite likely that many of the dollars spent over the Thanksgiving weekend on sales-discounted items are dollars that now won't be spent over the rest of the holiday shopping period. A detailed look inside the numbers by Yahoo's Daniel Gross also suggests that the news still isn't that good for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, who have to resort to ever more desperate strategies to attract consumers away from the convenience of online shopping.

We'll know a lot more about the current state of the U.S. economy at the end of this week, after fully digesting another month of new home sales, car sales, and jobs figures. Right now, the only thing we know for sure, after Thanksgiving, is that deep discounted sales are prompting Americans to go nuts. Happy holidays, everyone!

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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