The real cost of those Black Friday deals
By Caitlin Kelly
The opinions expressed are her own.
Americans shop. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. We’re still an economy powered by consumer spending – 70 percent of it, in fact. It’s an article of faith, for some, that annual Thanksgiving celebrations not only include turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, but lining up in the cold and dark at their favorite store to snag a Black Friday bargain.
Maybe not this year.
Spurred perhaps by the growing national strength of the Occupy Wall Street movement, two emboldened Target workers, Anthony Hardwick, of Omaha, NE and Seth Coleman, a dockworker from Northfield, MN have collected 180,000 signatures protesting their employer’s unprecedented decision to open their stores to shoppers at midnight. Coleman delivered a bag of signatures gathered on-line to Target headquarters in Minneapolis earlier this week.
Coleman will be working at the Target store in Northfield on Thanksgiving Day, from 4 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. Then he’ll return 12 hours later, to make sure the shelves are stocked for the company’s first ever midnight opening for the Christmas rush, reported Minnesota Public Radio.
There is also some talk of retail workers taking a sick-out to protest retailers’ demands that they leave their own holiday meals in order to be work by midnight or earlier.
Retailers routinely excuse their escalating demands, such as this year’s ever-earlier Black Friday store openings, because their competitors are doing it. They’ll lose business, they argue, if they don’t follow the herd. Retailers defend all corporate decisions — no matter how detrimental they may be to their indispensible low-wage workers or how unpopular they may be with shoppers newly sensitized to the needs of the 99 percent. Retailers claim it’s alright because they have to protect shareholders’ interests by keeping profits high and hitting their quarterly projections.
But are American shoppers truly comfortable with the real price of these putative bargains? Is any sale item really worth knowing that your friends and neighbors, children and grandchildren working in retail, are toiling long, grueling hours for pennies?
Do you really want to drag them away from their own holiday tables to sell you one more item a little more cheaply?
Retail is an almost $4 trillion industry. It’s the nation’s third-largest, and it’s the country’s largest source of new jobs in an economy where many employers, even those sitting on record corporate profits, still refuse to hire.
But what’s the value of these jobs?
The median retail wage in 2010 was $8.90 for a cashier and $9.86 for a sales associate – down from $9.50 an hour in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than three-quarters of retail workers are older than 25, contradicting the popular belief that only teens living at home work retail for a little extra pocket money.
One-third of all retail workers are the sole income for their families, working for poverty-level wages. Many of them want to work full-time, but retail employers, who clearly have the upper hand in an era with few other available jobs, consistently and increasingly offer them only part-time positions without benefits. Part-time workers earn a third less than those employed full-time, despite the physical and emotional labor — and the skills and product knowledge that retail work requires — being identical.
With wages remaining so low, many full-time retail workers need food stamps to boost their incomes. In New York, those in support of higher wages joined a rally Monday evening — some 2,000 strong — to fight for the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, which would require all developers receiving government tax breaks to impose a minimum wage on the retail tenants of their stadiums, malls or conference centers, requiring them to pay $10 per hour with benefits and $11.50 per hour without.
In 2008, another crowd of 2,000 people gathered outside a WalMart in Valley Stream, NY. They’d been massing since midnight for a Black Friday sale, and by the time the doors were opened at 5:00 a.m., tempers had frayed. As shoppers literally stampeded in, they trampled a 34-year-old employee, Jdimytai Damour, to death.
We all want a bargain. But let’s all keep some sense of our values as well.
Photo: A view of a Wal-Mart.com store at the Topanga Plaza in Canoga Park, California, November 8, 2011. Two tiny Walmart.com stores are making Southern California malls their home for the holidays, launching the latest salvo in the war for online retail dominance. REUTERS/Fred Prouser