The American View: Prime and Punishment
28 November 2017 |
Thanksgiving week – and all its associated shopping hysteria – is over, for which I am immensely grateful. For weeks, the US business press has been prognosticating about how lucrative the 2017 Thanksgiving weekend will turn out, as if this short window of retail activity might reveal the general health of the US economy for the coming year.
‘Black Friday’ (the day after Thanksgiving) is considered crucial for overall US consumer spending since 30-40% of all retail sales supposedly occur on this one ‘special’ shopping day. Back in October, the National Retail Foundation predicted that Americans would spend $682 billion over the 2017 holiday season. That’s … significant. 
Bear in mind, the entire week has grown into a consumer shopping bacchanal. Traditionally, both the Sunday and Wednesday editions of print newspapers on the week leading up to Thanksgiving will be triple-thick, stuffed to sales fliers. Every company you’ve ever done business with pushes ‘special deal’ announcement e-mails. Many desperate brick-and-mortar outlets open at midnight to maximize eager shoppers’ purchasing opportunities (and encourage competitive violence). 
It isn’t just ‘Black Friday,’ though. That nightmare is now followed by ‘Small Business Saturday,’ ‘Super Sunday,’ ‘Cyber Monday,’ and God-only-knows what else as what used to be a one-day affair turns into a two-week-long forced-march of frenzied spending. It’s become a twisted patriotic duty to join the throngs and nudge the national economy forward, like legions of exhausted labourers dragging limestone blocks towards a shiny new pyramid that nobody needs or asked for.
As a kid, a stack like this looks amazing. As an adult, it looks like a crushing mountain of debt.
For the record, I am not a fan of the Holiday Shopping Season. That’s why I spent this Black Friday working. Rather than either burn up my holiday hours or go without sleep, I put in my eight hours for the company and spent the evening tending to a sick dog. The only shopping activity I took part in was to sign for a brown cardboard package, silently giving thanks to Amazon.com that I could purchase a decent Christmas gift without having to venture anywhere near a shopping mall.
Credit where it’s due: Amazon set out to become the top retailer in the world, selling everything to everyone everywhere, by leveraging the Internet, highly-efficient logistics, and clever software to undercut traditional retail businesses. Fair’s fair, they’ve largely accomplished their goal; I haven’t had to go near a shopping mall in years now that I have Amazon Prime. I can now effortlessly purchase gifts on a whim and have them delivered to my doorstep effectively for free.
According to the local newsreaders, I should be consumed with guilt over my refusal to seek out as many retail shops as possible and spend more money than I actually have on stuff for other people that they probably don’t want or need. I should also be crippled with guilt over giving my money to Amazon instead of to local shops, since Amazon (like Wal-Mart before it, and Sears before that) is crushing all small businesses into dust like a towering kaiju monster rampaging through Tokyo.
I get the message. Amazon’s success (at the expense of local shops) has given us all a lot of internal conflict to resolve. We probably ought to feel guilty, and guilt is a darned powerful motivator. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic story Crime and Punishment, for example, is built entirely around an exploration and analysis of the effect of guilt on a mentally and emotionally troubled everyman. The story’s protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, rationalizes that he’s morally justified in murdering a hated local pawnbroker because he’ll do more good in the world with her money than she every would, thereby counterbalancing the evil of the murder on a cosmic scale. Rodion spends most of the story wracked with guilt and horror over his irreversible violation of social norms and laws. As the story develops, Rodion’s love interest Sofya Marmeladova implores him to confess to the murder and serve his debt to society in the pursuit of personal redemption.
You know you’re reading quality Russian literature when a prison term in Siberia is the best-case outcome for the protagonist.
There’s a parallel that ought to apply towards both the consumers and the retailers in the US Thanksgiving tradition. Dostoyevsky posits that Rodion was driven to commit his crime because of sense of ‘ideological intoxication.’ Rodion believes that society will be better if the unscrupulous pawnbroker character is killed, and that he has the intellectual fortitude to endure whatever guilt comes from committing an act as vile as cold-blooded murder.
In the same sense, Amazon’s founders and staff clearly acted according to their own ‘ideological intoxication;’ theirs being the Silicon Valley ‘Dot Com Boom’ ethos. That’s the start-up ideal that every existing business model that can be disrupted by technology must be disrupted for the benefit of the consumer and the overall economy. The fact that thousands of smaller, weaker businesses would be metaphorically slaughtered by Amazon’s unbeatable prices was an acceptable – even welcome – price to pay. After all, they were making the world a better place. Amazon’s lower prices and more-efficient delivery model would do more good in the world over the long run, thereby counterbalancing the evil that they did on the way there by crushing smaller and older competitors.
Should Amazon have been dissuaded from disrupting the retail market so severely that it permanently changed how consumers spend? Should they have been affected by guilt over the pain and suffering that they inflicted on tens of thousands of displaced workers in the pursuit of their noble goal? In a similar vein, should consumers have been wracked with guilt every time that they chose to buy goods from Amazon instead of at a friendly local retail shop? The newsreaders tell us that they should, and bemoan the decline of malls, the death of retail brands, and the loss of face-to-face service.
Contrary to the newsreaders’ angle, I argue that no, we shouldn’t be especially upset at Amazon for being Amazon. Setting aside their reportedly horrible corporate culture let’s focus on solely on their business model. Amazon succeeded in making shopping faster, easier, and cheaper overall. Their optional Prime service made them unbeatable by offering unlimited, free, two-day shipping for a hundred-dollar annual fee. That approach turned Amazon from a strong competitor to a true disruptor. As a bitter and surly old grown-up, I feel no guilt at all over helping Amazon disrupt the traditional Christmas shopping experience, especially over Thanksgiving weekend. The classic American consumer spending tradition is awful.
In a nod to green manufacturing, the following ‘you kids today don’t know how good you have it’ rant contains a minimum 70% post-consumer recycled curmudgeonly arguments.
See, I remember what it was like going Christmas shopping in the 70s and 80s: long trips on snowy roads to and from the mall. Long hikes in the bitter cold across dark and slushy car parks. Frustrating searches for limited options in picked-over aisles that were jam-packed with angry, loud, and confrontational shoppers. Exhausting queues for the working tills while the swishing store doors made the overheated shop air wet and chill. Surly, waspish clerks demanding price checks on mislabelled boxes. The occasional gift of influenza afterwards.
Damned near everything about the American Christmas shopping experience was miserable, and the pay-off afterwards on Christmas Day never lived up to the effort put in. It was a sacrifice we all made to the retail gods because our friends, neighbours, and televisions said we had to. I’ve had my fill, and to hell with the lot of it. That’s why feel no guilt over Thanksgiving week hunkered down in my den with a hot coffee, a warm dog, and an iPhone. I don’t choose Amazon for its price advantages; rather, I cheerfully pay the premium required to buy from Amazon specifically because it allows me to skip the local retail scene.
Unlike Rodion Raskolnikov’s brutal murder of a flesh-and-blood shop keeper, Amazon’s more abstract annihilation of the idea of a holiday shop-going tradition isn’t reason enough to torment the average consumer with guilt. First, because we can frequent our favourite local retailers’ physical establishments the other 52 weeks out of the year and thereby keep them competitive. Second, because the American Thanksgiving week experience really deserves to die. This irrational obsession with reserving one-third of annual retail spending for a specific miserable week isn’t worth it. Amazon the company may have many faults, but this contribution to improving our collective quality of life assuredly isn’t one.
 By way of comparison, that’s more money than the entire US defence budget from 2016. In fact, if we diverted just two years of Thanksgiving holiday week spending towards buying military aircraft, American consumers could cover the entire $1.4 trillion bill for the F-35 fighter programme.
 Back in 2008, a Wal-Mart employee in New York was trampled to death by a surging mob. More ‘Black Friday’ horror stories get added to the ‘violence and chaos’ section of Wikipedia’s Back Friday page every year.
Title Allusion: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866 serial, 1867 novel)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.