Black Friday sales were lower this year than last, both nationally and in the New Haven area, according to the New Haven Register. Yet this decreased business is no indication that Americans’ enthusiasm for ritualized spending frenzies has diminished.
Indeed, Black Friday owes its decline to the greater prominence of several other shopping holidays: Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday and Gray Thursday, the informal term for the waning hours of Thanksgiving itself, during which retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart have opened their doors to customers since 2011. What was once a single day of excess and unrestrained consumerism has ballooned into a week.
Of course, Black Friday and its cohort of awkwardly-named-excuses-to-shop are only the beginning of the long winter retail season. Last November and December, American consumers spent $602 billion on holiday gifts, food, decorations and more. This spending is not simply driven by wealthy individuals: A study from Lexington Law showed 57 percent of American parents planned to take on debt in order to buy holiday presents for their children. This statistic should astound all of us.
During this time of year, columnists across the world decry materialism and consumerism. After all, frugality is one of those ideals that nearly everyone can get behind: It appeals to the Left’s distrust of corporations and capitalism, the Right’s nostalgia for simpler and more virtuous times and the Center’s wariness of excess and irresponsibility.
After all, the arguments for consumerism are easily dismissed. Doesn’t holiday consumption drive economic growth? Yes, but so does buying a meal for a homeless person. Isn’t gift-giving caring and generous? Of course, but the most important kind of gifts are the ones that cannot be bought. Isn’t it great that people can buy what they want at low prices? Only if one believes that people ought to want slightly bigger televisions and highly specialized food processors; only if what people want is synonymous with what is good and worthwhile.
Yet, if so many of us pay lip service to the notion of frugality and decry consumerism, how many of us apply these ideals in practice?
Yale University, for instance, is replete with examples of needless excess. Not the freshman holiday dinner, a lovely, once-a-year tradition, or our gothic architecture, an integral part of the University’s aesthetics, but the several luxury retail stores to which University Properties rents space. Out of the seven new businesses that opened on Broadway last week, almost all are out of the price range of the average American and even the average Yale student: high-end cosmetics, handcrafted olive oil, upscale restaurants and more expensive clothing stores.
Luxury stores such as these are growing more common, not just in New Haven but around the world, due to the continuing success of businesses that cater to the tastes of the global elite. From airlines and sports arenas to hotels and real estate, more and more industries find that they can make the highest profits through luxury goods and high-end services. For the wealthiest across the world, every day is Black Friday.
Of course, the consumption habits of the global elite are just as relevant to readers of this paper as the decisions of University Properties. Statistically, a large proportion of Yale undergraduates will earn or inherit a great deal of money, and a small number will become fabulously wealthy. Will Yalies spend their wealth on conspicuous consumption, or will they choose frugality? In twenty years, will they splurge on designer clothes and private jets, or will they distribute malaria nets and fix crumbling schools?
Now is the time to think critically about our values and priorities before we are tempted with success and wealth. There is no better context than a university community in which to interrogate our future decisions.
Consumerism and excess are attractive to the global elite for the same reasons they are attractive to Yale University, for the same reasons they are attractive to Black Friday shoppers. Consumption is driven by status, recognition and instant gratification. We can only combat it with reflection, humility and perspective.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.