Happy Cyber Monday!

Inasmuch as I understand anything these days, Cyber Monday was designed as the day for online retailers to offer consumers their biggest deals of the holiday season, and, thus, to pocket whatever funds people have left after the frenzy of in-store Black Friday shopping. As for the last-named, it began simply enough as the name retail clerks gave to the busiest day of the shopping year, when the start of the gift-buying season coincided with a day most people had off from work. I have worked retail, and I can assure you that the stampede on the last Friday of November makes it a miserable day to work behind a counter. To take further advantage of the shopping frenzy on that day, retailers took to offering special bargains, some available only early in the day, as a means to get people out spending money as early as possible. Although I am neither a morning person nor an inveterate bargain-hunter, I love the word “doorbuster.” I am also thankful that the store in which I worked didn’t offer such early morning deals, which, no doubt, made Black Friday even blacker for the salespeople in stores that did.

Moreover, Black Friday sales have come to be considered a harbinger of the shopping season to come. It’s something of a Groundhog Day for retail, and sales figures are eagerly awaited.

This year’s report, on the front page of Saturday’s paper, was that Black Friday sales had been lower than expected.

To which I have one word: duh.

Black Friday used to be one day, the Friday after Thanksgiving. This year, we’ve had a month of Black Fridays, and Black Friday Deals were already advertised on the Friday the 13th we had this month. (Were people misconstruing whence the “black” came?) One auto manufacturer has been saturating hockey games with “Black Friday Deals All Month” as a slogan. With nearly a month of Black Fridays behind us, small wonder that the sales figures from three days’ ago produced some disappointment.

Although I am not the doorbusters type, and the only time I ever ventured into a store on Black Friday was when my boss made me, I can see how the day made itself into a beloved American institution. That was until they started ruining it, by pushing what used to be 7:00 AM doorbusters earlier and earlier into the dark of a late November night. The idea of going to bed early with a tryptophan-sodden system so as to be able to get up before dawn to catch the big early bird bargains was destroyed when retailers moved doorbusters to midnight. And worse. This year, Toys R Us opened its Black Friday doors at 5:00 on Thursday afternoon. That not only spoils one’s digestion of one’s Thanksgiving dinner; it means rushing through the pumpkin pie.

Cyber Monday has been similarly reduced to nonsense, nowhere as much as from the German branch of Amazon, which, two weeks ago, was sending me e-mails about “Countdown zu Cyber Monday Woche.” It wasn’t until the following week that I realized what was being counted down was the week leading to, not Cyber Monday itself, but to the eight (!) days of Cyber Monday Woche, which climaxed today, the echt Cyber Monday. I found Amazon.de’s two weeks of Cyber Monday even more confusing than the real-world month of Black Friday, not least of all because it made it impossible to know when the best bargains were to be had.

At least Amazon.de didn’t celebrate schwarze Freitag.

Cyber Monday had been an invention of the days when online and in-store commerce were seeking ways to balance each other. The proportion of online to in-store shopping has shifted since then, and the idea of waiting for the aftermath of Black Friday to allow everyone to contemplate Cyber Monday’s online deals from the comfort of their homes no longer makes fiscal sense. Online retailers, now in head-and-head competition for the holiday consumer dollar, very logically would want a part of the Black Friday pie, rather than just a helping of the leftovers still in the refrigerator three days later. Thus a deluge of online Black Friday sale announcements, with the virtual doorbusters starting on Thursday (and often earlier) and lasting throughout the weekend. It may be a contradiction in terms, but an online Black Friday makes economic sense. Being able to take advantage of the deals without having to bust doors open and elbow one’s way to the register only makes the online Black Friday experience all the more logical.

But wait: what missive through yonder e-mail box breaks? Cyber Monday! Online retailers’ taking advantage of Black Friday hasn’t replaced the theoretically complimentary institution of Cyber Monday, and, what with Black Friday deals lasting through the weekend, the two sales have ended up running into each other without a pause for the overworked servers to catch their metaphoric breath.

To choose an example, there is an online retailer of hockey apparel, which, over the weekend, offered a darn good deal on their darn good hockey jersey personalization. Literally the second that was over, the site began offering 20% off on the rest of its merchandise. I know from experience that the people behind the site do excellent work, and offer truly excellent customer service. I am sure they’re not out to jerk their customers’ chains, but this need to create two different sales has led to a confusing policy which doesn’t work to the consumer’s advantage. In a better world, there would have been one sale offering the discount on jersey personalization as well as 20% off everything else. I’m “lucky” in that I ended up waiting for today to order my Vancouver Canucks belt; had I ordered it along with a jersey on Friday, I would have been most annoyed come today’s e-mail.

How do you know when to shop amidst all this confusion of month-long juxtaposed sales? In days of yore, one could generally trust that the best prices and selection of the season were to be had by early bird shoppers the day after Thanksgiving. I’m still not sure whether the purchases I made on the earlier Black Fridays this month could have been had for less on the real Black Friday. I’d probably be annoyed if I knew. (I do wonder how many retailers are offering adjustments in the midst of all the chaos.)

I’m not accusing retailers of intentionally playing cat-and-mouse with holiday shoppers. It’s just that the relentless pushing forward of the start of the holiday shopping season has made it impossible to know where the season actually begins, and when the bargain-hunters can find their best quarry. Retailers big and small are likely as confused as we are. I’m sure the meeting where separating Black Friday deals from Cyber Monday bargains leaves everyone in attendance with a headache…which is then passed along to the shopping public.

Underlying all the underlying causes of this out-of-control phenomenon is, unfortunately, good old American consumerist greed. I can’t remember a time when buy! buy! buy! hadn’t dominated the Christmas season, and, in post-recession days, an entrepreneur even on my scale can appreciate how buy! buy! buy! keeps the economy functioning and puts food on tables. I like Christmas presents; I even still wrap mine in paper and make my own bows out of ribbon. A wave of commercialism to accompany the start of Advent is neither new nor bad, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who preferred one giant tsunami the day after Thanksgiving to a highly confusing month of heavy and unpredictable surf.

That holiday miracle, A Charlie Brown Christmas, has its annual showing this evening. Not insignificantly, it is being shown this year while it is still November, although I doubt that its critique of consumerist values was scheduled as a comment on Cyber Monday. Even for an ecumenically minded Jew like myself, Linus’ sublime recitation from the Book of Luke is one of the best reminders anywhere of the season’s meaning. I was celebrating baby’s second Christmas the year A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired, and, even then, a return to Linus’ Christmas values was something only to be wished for wistfully and fondly. I can accept that I am living in a world which takes its cues from Snoopy’s over-decorated doghouse.

But is it too much to hope for a return to those simpler times when Black Friday was Black Friday…and Cyber Monday was Cyber Monday?

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