05 December 2008


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 05 December 2008

Last week’s commentary ended: “Today is time to pause, reflect, be ever mindful of need before want—and give thanks for what we have.” “Need before want” is prime for comment as less than 24 hours after last week’s post our citizenry reinforced why we are perceived globally, by friend and foe, as an over-indulgent, materialistic nation of “want over need.” Why should anything have changed since the real estate quagmire surfaced—people “wanting” homes they did not “need”—could not afford? In our culture of short-lived attentiveness that problem’s nearly ancient history—it surfaced months (not minutes) ago. And besides, isn’t the government coming to our rescue with a bailout? Good grief, as I prepare these thoughts, our nation’s leadership continues to reward and even encourage the immature behavior of “want.” No wonder we have a huge segment of the populace that’s completely confused when it comes to differentiating between “need” and “want.” “Wants” have morphed into “entitlements” and therefore “needs.” If adults are misguided and confused how can we possibly expect to ever correct the problem in future generations? It’s a real poser for a think tank—if we can find enough sane folks for membership. Yet ironically, and even unfairly, ugly behavior stemming from “want”—a luxury of freedom and wealth (real and perceived—can you say “credit”)—overshadows our country’s generosity and dogged commitment to foster and defend freedom and democracy around the world. Our land—our people—is indeed an enigma to outsiders—as well as to many who call this land home. Count me amongst the bewildered.

A “want” story…
One gray, cold afternoon in December 1967 a young boy accompanied mother on a shopping trip to a local department store. While wandering the decorated, music-filled store jammed with bustling shoppers, a blaze-orange woodsman hat (photo left)—with matching fur-covered, fold-down forehead and ear flaps—caught the boy’s eye. Impossible to miss—the hat was a beam of light—it was irresistible even at a pricey $5.00. Mother explained to her son there were plenty of hats at home and this one was to remain in the store—unless he paid for it. Not to be deterred, the smitten boy was enlightened by an eavesdropping saleslady that not having $5.00 was only a temporary problem solved by the magic of lay-away. Every few weeks he managed to scrape together 50 or 75 cents and rode his bike to the store to chip away at the debt he promised to pay. Disappointingly, by the time he owned the hat winter had turned to spring and there was no call to wear it. By next winter the boy had grown—a variable overlooked in the purchase decision—and the hat no longer fit. Though never worn to fend off the cold, the hat proved invaluable teaching about need and want, money, responsibility, and time and change.

It’s now December, 41 years later, and I still own that hat. It has served as a constant reminder that want is an indulgence, credit may be the American way but it’s not necessarily the smart way, and spending money requires careful thought. In retrospect, that hat was a wise purchase; saving—making—me a few bucks during the past four decades. A “tip-of-the-hat” to Mom (& Dad) for an important life’s lesson—thanks. From my treasured hat and for decades now, I do not get shopping—I just don’t get it. For some it’s an art—for others sport—for still others an obsession and even an addiction—a sickness; as I see it. Admittedly, I do not and never have liked going to stores. I go when I need something. And, on rare occasion, I tag along with my wife to discreetly ensure wants do not exceed our needs—that we don’t end up with any unnecessary “hats.” Though we are miserly, our differing opinions of “need” and “want” make for interesting negotiations. My favorite example from nearly 20 years ago: Never mind that a store-bought loaf of bread was a bargain—and still is—we “needed” a breadmaker. Once the novelty passed and the still-in-working-order machine was relegated to the back corner of an obscure kitchen cupboard—noting expense of the machine and ingredients for homemade bread—our cost per loaf was slightly less than $6.25. I rest my case.

As you might imagine, “Black Friday” truly puzzles me. I do not get it—at all. I have spent more than two decades of marriage patiently explaining to my wife—who humors me by listening—there is no such thing as a “sale.” Yet marketers have done a great job convincing the public—including my wife—otherwise through relentless carpet-bombing in every imaginable medium and store points-of-sale. There never has been a “sale” and never will be. Accordingly, there is no such thing as saving money by spending money. Money spent is money spent—period. It’s lunacy to believe or rationalize a position of saved money if you have spent money. Here’s the bottom line on pricing and it’s not a revelation: products are sold at the price the market will bear. It is one of the most fundamental of economic principles—cleverly disguised by the ruse of a “sale.” It is that simple. And it works.

Pricing aside, far more intriguing for me on Black Friday is human behavior. Diehards make a plan well in advance—to shop. People park outside retail outlets—12 hours or more before doors are to open. Even nuttier, families sleep in their cars and others form long, snaking lines camping out for hours on sidewalks just to be first through the doors to snatch whatever “thing” they “want”—that they could not possibly live without. This year, electronics are the rage—“Guitar Hero” (I have no idea and really don’t want to know), digital cameras, laptops, iPods, XBox 360s, HDTVs, and whatever else the marketing gurus are hyping as the “must have” this Christmas season. Oh, yes, the “things—to die for” as people say when reaching the point of completely “stupid” over something. Well, “to die for” is exactly what happened this year.

Customer pandemonium at a Long Island, New York, Walmart led to the frenzied crowd of more than 2,000 literally ripping store doors from the hinges and storming in trampling employees—killing one associate and injuring other employees and customers. Several people were taken to a local hospital for treatment and observation. Incidents elsewhere around the country included customers being trampled—though not to death—and squabbles escalating into fights when demand for coveted “toys” exceeded supply. In Southern California two men shot and killed each other inside a crowded Toys R Us. The impromptu gunfight erupted after their women began to fight. Of course the only manly thing to do to stop the feline fracas was to kill each other. At this writing it’s still not clear if the shootout, triggered (no pun intended—really) by the feuding females, was over toys or an on ongoing dispute between the couples. It doesn’t matter—it was bad headwork and that there was guilty and innocent victims make it part of Black Friday madness. Since and fortunately no innocent people were harmed—beyond immediate mental trauma and lingering psychological anguish—could be the Darwin Awards selection committee has found their 2008 co-winners. It’ll take quite a stunt to top these two guys. Look out hockey moms, pit bulls, and pigs—with or without your red lipstick—you have met your match with maniacal Black Friday’ers.

Is it not absolutely ridiculous “casualty reports” in retail stores, across the United States on Black Friday, could almost pass for combat reports—deaths and injuries—in Iraq and Afghanistan? It’s crazy. Though accountable to some degree, it’s difficult to place total blame on Walmart for the tragic death—the incident could have happened at any number of big-name stores anywhere in the country. Blame does rest squarely on the callous people—selfishly chasing “want (e.g. plasma TVs, cameras, video games) over need”—trampling anyone in their way—killing an innocent man. Further disturbing is no one stopped to assist the fallen, helpless employee until the stampede passed—it was too late. What in the world? May they be haunted, if not eventually punished, for their unconscionable, inexcusable behavior. But Walmart, as a retail goliath recognized as the largest company in the history of the world, does have a responsibility, a duty, to step forward and change practices—rethinking the industry benchmark for corporate consciousness and creating a model to ensure a safe shopping experience for employees and customers. It’s tough breaking new ground—it’s called “Leadership”; with a capital “L”—something that’s blatantly absent from some big American business enterprises these days.

There’s no time here to expound upon the technical legal matters television analyst-lawyers are bickering over e.g. corporate liability, customer criminal charges, and the like surrounding the death. Hopefully, one day, the havoc will be untangled, the culpable called to the carpet, and justice reign. But in the meantime there needs to be aggressive action addressing the problem to prevent another tragedy. So sparing unnecessary detail, here’s one simple solution: Take positive control of parking lots on Black Friday—charge an entry fee for parking and store entry. No ticket—no parking—no store entry. Set a nominal price—to illustrate, say $25 (it could easily be more). Let’s assume the average Walmart parking lot can accommodate 500 vehicles. Do the math—with some 3,900 stores in the United States that’s nearly $50 million. Turn parking lots into family tailgate festivals rivaling warm-ups for college and pro football games. Provide entertainment, food vendors, chestnuts roasting on open fires, whatever, and forbid alcohol. Dispatch Santa, elves, and sales associates to roam the lot to greet, promote, distribute “sale” coupons and prepare the crowd. When store doors open—no salivating, hyper raiding party—customers are permitted entry based on ticket number; low to high. Crowd control—order—and civility is restored. As a good community neighbor, though with no obligation to do so, the retailer could donate some of the lot proceeds back to local charities. It’s a “win-win” solution.

In the name of profit, safety, and the Christmas spirit it’s one idea worth considering. There are sundry possibilities. For all I know, planning is underway as the executives know Black Friday madness is likely to only worsen. Why not control the chaos and make a little money. Walmart, a leader without peer when it comes to sales, rakes in $36 million every hour of every day in U.S. stores alone—$30 million is daily profit. It’s time for Walmart to again lead showing how to turn a repugnant liability into a public relations coup while bettering the bottom line. No one—employee or customer—should ever be recklessly subjected to injury or death by an unruly, frenzied mob competing (this is not shopping)—for wants—“on sale”—they do not need. It’s insane. It’s absurd. To befittingly reword the opening line of the 1934 Christmas classic, “Winter Wonderland,” by composer Felix Bernard (1897-1944) and lyricist Richard B. Smith (1901-1935)…“Hey, Walmart, are you listening…”

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