Does Black Friday have to become Black Thanksgiving?

I write a lot about Savannah’s retail landscape, but I’m not much of a shopper. My last batch of shirts — both casual and “work” — came from Goodwill. Last week, I needed some new shoes; I bought three pair at Payless in 15 minutes for $37.

I’d never dream of going out super-early on the Friday after Thanksgiving to buy anything, but I get it — some of those markdowns on major items can make a huge difference for many Americans.

And, like it or not, we have developed an economy that’s heavily reliant on consumer spending.

I suppose one can blame big boxes to some degree for this simple fact, but I think the consumerist impulse just runs deeper in the American psyche than that. I don’t really think Alexis de Tocqueville would be too surprised by America’s consumer culture — it’s a part of who we are as a nation.

But what does it say about us when we let a great holiday like Thanksgiving get taken over by shopping?

A number of my Armstrong students were complaining last week about the burdens they were going to face over the holidays. In a tough economy and in need of jobs, many Americans end up working retail even if they have the skills to do something that pays better. When those workers took those jobs, they didn’t know they were necessarily signing up for work on Thanksgiving day in addition to Black Friday.

It’s bad enough just being at work absurdly early facing screaming crowds on the day after the holiday, as you can see in the face of this Victoria’s Secret manager yesterday:

I would like to think that the prevalence of cell phone video cameras and videos like that one (if you let it play to the end, lots of similar ones will appear in thumbnails) might prompt some cultural reconsideration about our shopping mania. But I expect to be disappointed in that hope.

And with so much demand, it’s no surprise that retailers are now opening on Thanksgiving. Depressing, especially for the employees who would rather be with friends or family, but not surprising.

Maybe the best that we can hope for now is that major retailers will move their most dramatic sales to the previous weekend. That might upset some Americans’ Thanksgiving “traditions”, but it might give employees a break.

Over the medium- and long-term, America will likely have to develop an economy that’s a little less dependent on consumer spending.

From the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank in January 2012, Don’t Expect Consumer Spending To Be the Engine of Economic Growth It Once Was:

Can American consumers continue to serve as the engine of U.S. and global economic growth as they did during recent decades? Several powerful trends suggest not, at least for a while. Instead, new sources of demand, both domestic and foreign, are needed if we are to maintain healthy rates of growth. Unfortunately, this won’t be easy because consumer spending constitutes the largest part of our economy, and replacements for it—more investment, more government spending or more exports—either can’t be increased rapidly or might create unwanted consequences of their own.

Keep in mind that Personal Consumption Expenditures cover a whole lot more than just “cheap stuff”, but it’s still striking how reliant our economy is on PCE. From the St. Louis Fed:

And compare our PCE to GDP ratio to that in Canada (again from the St. Louis Fed link above):

The St. Louis Fed post makes a compelling case for increased investment as a necessity for our economy. And a compelling case that PCE is probably unsustainable at the current levels for a variety of reasons, including a few that are unlikely to vanish soon like lower wealth and stagnant incomes.

But that necessary economic adjustment might or might not change the culture of Black Thanksgiving.