I have always been incredibly critical of the Black Friday phenomenon whereby major retailers, and most notoriously Walmart, offer a handful of products at insanely low prices to people that are too stupid, or excited to realise that they only stock five of the items per store and the items are “while supplies last.”
I am, perhaps, particularly critical because three or four years ago, I was one of those incredibly stupid people. I got up at 3 am on Black Friday to go to Walmart and see if I could get one of those $300 laptops. I live in New York City where we have no Walmart stores, so headed over to the Walmart in New Jersey just across the Lincoln Tunnel.
I had no idea how bad it would be:
Approaching the store from at least a mile away there was a line to get into the parking lot. Once I got into the parking lot, it became even more clear (if that is at all possible) that we would not get in. It was also clear that despite the freezing weather, the person at the front of the line had waited for perhaps 12 hours.
I turned around and went home, feeling a bit frustrated, but mainly just, well, stupid. But what impressed me was seeing in person just how effective the sales technique was. I needed to see with my own two eyes to really understand how powerful, dishonest and troubling Walmart marketing is. A statistically insignificant number of people would be able to take advantage of the most attractive sale prices they were offering. These were the sale prices promoted in a nation-wide television campaign and on the front of the millions of circulars that they inserted into newspapers around the country.
In short, the promotions are an incredibly efficient fraud. They have structured the sale in such a way that it behaves more like a lottery. They create a demand that, for most people, cannot be satisfied. It is a bait and switch. They offer the $300 computer, which of course they are immediately and permanently out of stock on, but once they have you in the store, they know you will buy other less impressively discounted items.
Looks Quite Unethical:
In my view, this is an unethical technique. But this last Friday, Black Friday, it became clear that the technique is more than just unethical. It is lethal. And perhaps the “Black” description, previously used as an accounting reference to profitability, will now have an entirely new and more troubling context.
In our most recent Black Friday, a seasonal “security” worker at a Long Island Walmart was trampled to death. He was killed as the early morning crowd of thousands of adrenaline high shoppers forced the locked Walmart doors open and mercilessly, and perhaps ignorantly stomped the man to death in their quests for cheap flat screen TVs, computers, limited availability items, and other discounts.This was a totally foreseeable event. First, there are obviously all of the security measures that should have been taken that weren’t. And this will likely be blamed on negligent local store security procedures. But this is not what troubles me.
The truly predictable part of this is that by hyping things up so much, and by creating such scarcity, they are guaranteeing an over-the-top emotional state which leads to these kinds of things. Of course, the over-the-top emotional state is exactly what they want. But you can’t have it both ways. If you are going to benefit from the incredible and disingenuous hype, then you must also take responsibility for all of its outcomes. If Walmart really wanted to avoid this kind of thing, there is no reason that they couldn’t have a one day sale, and guarantee that anyone who wants a for sale item on the sale day could have one.
But it’s business at the end:
Of course, being ethical has its downsides. For example, people wouldn’t be competing to be first in line, making for less excitement. And they’d actually have to sell, probably at a loss, more of those super cheap items to thousands of people. Oh, and, of course, one poor insignificant Walmart worker would probably not be dead. Probably, not worth it