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America's holiday shopping madness -- don't we all have something better to do?
[Posted 28 November 2005]

The Associated Press reports today that after initially strong retail sales last Friday morning (the infamous day-after-Thanksgiving Christmas shopping season kickoff), sales dropped off later in the day, and haven't seemed to recover since. Americans are buying less this year, at least less than last year's Thanksgiving weekend. According to the AP, shoppers took advantage of early bird specials on Friday and then retreated, with the AP speculating that higher gasoline and home heating oil prices made Christmas budgets tighter this year. Well, that seems like common sense, doesn't it? That and people who don't have JOBS because of the bad economy have little or no money to spend. Yet another layoff by the thousands was announced this morning, this time by Merck, claiming that it has suffered from lost sales of its highly questionable drug Vioxx. (Yeah, sure, that and the unemployed no longer have health plans to pay for prescription drugs, now that they're LAID OFF... Why can't people be honest about the spin-off effect?)

Of course, assuming the bad economy is to blame for this year's sales decrease ignores anti-materialism movements like "Buy Nothing Day." As if Americans don't have their homes jammed with enough junk as it is! Some people are deliberately trying to cut down on holiday trinkets, myself included. As I get older and see friends and relatives burdened with so many material possessions -- never used, yet occupying much of their living space -- it seems like the best choice to make. And then... and then... there's the suffering, the pain... of the holiday shopping season.

Somehow I found myself shopping in New York last Friday. I know it seems like the craziest thing to do, subjecting myself to endless traffic jams with the most careless drivers, but I was staying over at a friend's place for part of the Thanksgiving holiday, and he didn't have an extra bed. So my job was to find a camper cot or air bed for the night. I really didn't want to be shopping, knew shopping on the day after Thanksgiving was complete madness, but it had to be done.

After finding that Target and Wal-Mart had both raised their prices 3 or 4 times over last year's non-Christmas prices (when I was in a similar situation), I finally found a really cute and light camper cot at a sporting goods store. Meanwhile, I had the opportunity to see a slice of America that might be better off hidden.

First, Target was opening at 6 a.m. for early shoppers. I showed up at 5 minutes to 6, expecting to see a largely empty parking lot. Instead, it was already half full and people were heading out of their cars to line up outside the door. Inside, the usual craziness -- some pushing and diving in front of my cart, others stopping in the middle of the aisle holding up traffic while they talked over the details of their shopping decisions ad nauseum. And loads of worthless junk all over the place (some of it quite pretty). Most of the shoppers were women in the age group of 30-50, some with their spouses. Very few children.

Off to Wal-Mart, where of course the parking lot was the first bastion of rudeness and dangerous driving. (True to my rant on Wal-Mart, I usually don't shop there. I think I've been in Wal-Mart once during the past YEAR, when I found myself on the road in Michigan -- while thinking I was just over the border in Indiana -- and in need of an item that I knew Wal-Mart would have, etc.) I managed to find a spot right away -- several stores down, and I was lucky to find it. Had to dodge careless drivers to get there. Inside, the store was packed with people much more pushy and aggressive than at Target. Wal-Mart's crowd seemed slightly younger than Target's overall, with a mix of women, men, and children. The store was packed, almost to the point of being dangerous on the escalator. After viewing Wal-Mart's bad deals on air mattresses and their one broken cot, I found a man with a Cabela's cap on and asked if he knew of a sporting goods store in the area, where I could find a decent cot. Thankfully, his advice led me to 2 nearby stores where service was almost OK, and the pushing and shoving was available but not nearly as brutal as Wal-Mart's. The sporting store's price was half of what Wal-Mart wanted for its one broken cot, and the sporting store's cot was much smaller and lighter -- something someone could actually carry in a large backpack if they went on a hiking trip, or store in their closet using minimal space.

After the ordeal, I had to endure holiday traffic for the rest of the day, as I ate, pumped gas, and slowly accomplished a few errands before making it to my friend's apartment. It took near-endless patience to make it through the day, with the one horn-honking incident involving an old man in an SUV (with a police sticker on his vehicle -- a retired cop on a power trip?) who decided to block an alley near Starbuck's, preventing everyone from accessing its rear parking lot, then disappearing into the coffee shop for quite a while as people were waiting in their cars to get through. It seems the holidays bring out drivers better left at home.

Although I can appreciate the courtesy and even kindness of holiday gift-giving, and the strong tendency for events involving gifts and feasts across cultures, it occurs to me -- don't Americans have something better to do with their time? Don't we all have enough useless junk in our closets, garages, and attics? Will the person you buy a gift for use that gift for more than 2 days next year? Will it have any meaning for them other than a holiday prop? And does driving around for days on end in exhaust fumes and speeding traffic weavers make the gift-giver happy? Is it a positive and uplifting experience, or does it make you nervous, frustrated with your fellow man, wanting to go home and hit the Silknog?

Americans have turned a previously religious holiday into automobile and shopping mall hell. As with our usual daily routines, people are focused on accomplishing their own personal tasks, showing little kindness or interest along the way. Rushing for the best deals on cheap junk is all-important, at least until the junk is broken or forgotten... usually about a month later. It seems being distracted by material things is the American thing to do. Cheap junk is the way to show affection for the holidays, telling relatives and friends that they're appreciated, or at least remembered.

I'm not going to finish this rant with suggestions on how to make the holidays better. That's a mountainous topic better left to individual families to sort out. Some may be religious, others may want to take time with each other instead of passing trinkets around. And quite a few people would probably be happier getting away from relatives and their stressed-out lives, maybe by taking a holiday vacation. But the point is, we'd be a lot happier if we get away from the materialism of the season. It stresses people with shopping AND paying the bills later, and we just don't need that much stuff cluttering our houses. Maybe this year people aren't buying because they're broke, but hopefully they'll remember how little they needed this year, after Bush is finally out of office and the economy picks up again. I'm hoping everyone will remember the personal freedom that comes with NOT SHOPPING, or at least not shopping as much as usual.

Considering the little time American workers have off each year, everyone needs to consider how they REALLY want to be spending the few free days they may or may not have away from the job over the holidays. Why does everyone have to be stressed and miserable? We all have better things to do with our time, better ways to fill the holidays, and it's time to start doing them!

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