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Tis the season / November 27, 2013
With the holiday season upon us, I find myself looking forward to Thanksgiving as much as, if not more than, other prominent dates on the calendar. Unlike Christmas, which can be such as big deal it becomes overwhelming, Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy the company of family and friends with no need for much fuss. (Except when it comes to preparing the evening feast, of course). Not to knock the virtues of our Dec. 25 holiday spectacle, but there’s a lot to be said for keeping it simple on this national day of thanks.

Of course, Thanksgiving has another side, too — it’s the official kickoff of the Christmas shopping season. (The unofficial kickoff comes sometime around Halloween.) I’m not big into shopping, and my job doesn’t require me to rise at 4 o’clock on the morning after Thanksgiving to work the early bird sales that draw customers through the door. So I’m probably not the best person to ask about this particular aspect of the extended holiday weekend. It’s nice to see people get out and enjoy themselves, and if shopping’s their thing, more power to them. Plus it helps to keep the economy humming.

Is it too much to ask, however, that a respectful distance be maintained between the celebratory and the commercial on Thanksgiving Day proper? In recent years, it has become common for big-box retailers to push their Black Friday sales into Thanksgiving night, with companies such as Walmart and Target throwing open their doors soon after the last plate of turkey is consumed. Even lower-profile retail chains have joined the trend. For someone for whom Thanksgiving’s blessings include a day off from work to spend with loved ones, the question is obvious: Is all this really necessary?

Ah, the refrain goes, don’t point fingers at retailers, or any other business for that matter, that only are giving people what they want. And this is true up to a point. Thanksgiving Day sales have become a big deal because people can’t seem to resist the lure of getting out of the house and flocking to the mall. Whether this is because there’s only so much folks can take of crazy Uncle Frank spouting off on politics or the thought of having to wash up the dirty dishes after dinner, Thanksgiving Night has become almost as important an event for some retailers as Black Friday itself. The eternal quest for the big ‘n’ cheap plasma screen TV apparently knows no bounds of time or place.

And yet, for all the kicks that people may get from scoring unbelievable deals, for all the thrill that comes from being the first to grab the door buster item, there’s the other side of the equation to consider: other people have to show up for work to make this retail extravaganza possible. Sure, some employees probably appreciate the chance to earn the overtime pay. But I have a hard time believing that all, or even most, of these folks really want to be working on Thanksgiving night. By the same token, it’s hard to believe that the likes of Walmart wouldn’t be able to make up for lost sales from being closed on Thanksgiving over the long course of the Christmas shopping season.

This is not a rant against big-box retailers. If one really wants to get worked up about this stuff, a more fruitful target of ire might be the individuals who think nothing of going out for a night of shopping (or entertainment) on a night that society has traditionally blocked out as family time. Yet how many of us can say we put family consistently ahead of our own work, to say nothing of someone else’s? Still, Thanksgiving represents one of those rare pauses that are conducive to pondering the consequences of our choices. And shopping in particular is about nothing if not choices. By permitting ourselves to get caught up in a mad consumerist rush, we reveal a lot more about our priorities than we may care to admit.

Working a retail job on Thanksgiving night — not an essential task to the proper functioning of society, most people would probably agree. But do they care enough to act on it? There’s a pervasive mindset that so many things in life are beyond our control, there’s no point in complaining about them any more. Hand-in-glove with this sentiment is the proliferation of scolds who are only too happy to tell you what an awful person you are for engaging in behavior that, if not a sure path to happiness, at least represents a break from the hum-drum of everyday life. (Actually, these pundits and social commentators rarely will say you’re an awful person. They typically tell you that someone else is an awful person.) Out of this hot-house of apathy, powerless, recrimination and blame, people can be forgiven for just throwing up their hands and saying the heck with it. But this doesn’t do any good. Why not instead distinguish between the things we can change and improve upon, and the things we cannot?

Let’s talk plasma screen TVs for a second. How many of the under-$200 units on sale this weekend at Walmart are manufactured in America? Not many, as we all know. The brutal economics of the consumer electronics business — with the incessant demand from the buying public for faster-better-cheaper devices — is more than most American companies, and American workers, who don’t like to be paid in peanuts can bear. So the manufacturing end of the business has shifted to South Korea, China, and various other countries that enjoy the benefit of low-cost workforces and cheap currencies. (The U.S.’s longstanding adherence to a high-dollar policy that first and foremost serves the interests of Wall Street doesn’t help the situation any.) Yet even if one could stand at the front door of Walmart shouting out to the customers, “Cheap has consequences!” the activism wouldn’t make much difference. It would be like a wave hitting the shore. Who are you going to believe, the annoying person with the megaphone or your own lyin’ eyes as they land upon a home entertainment system on sale for the low, low price of $99.99?

Lacking viable incentives to do otherwise, one shouldn’t feel too guilty about buying goods and services from one particular company, even one deemed especially ruthless among rivals, unless its competitive advantage arises from predatory behavior or criminal activity or some such similar evil. Yet much of the time, we do have viable choices — whether it’s passing up the chance to shop Thanksgiving evening and biding our time for Black Friday sales, or a matter even more consequential. In this vein, perhaps the most important decision you can make this shopping season is not what to buy, but where to buy it. It helps that the right answer is usually an easy one: from local businesses, whenever you can.

This isn’t a topic that needs to be left to the preachers. The case for shopping local is all about your self-interest, not someone else’s. It starts with the fact there’s lots of cool stuff to be found at mom ‘n’ pop shops, often at excellence prices. Then there’s the follow-through after the sale: If you’ve ever bought an item at a big-box store or over the Internet only to see it fall apart with the slightest use, you should have even more reason to turn to local merchants who will stand behind the products they sell. True, there are shopkeepers who will fail to uphold this maxim, but they tend not to hang around for very long. And while it’s also true that many chain retailers excel at customer service, the local vs. not-local buying decision tends to hinge on a basic consideration: value vs. price. If you find it’s a close call, consider that one course of action alone keeps your dollars circulating here at home.

Local communities have limited ability to control their fates. The force of economic and cultural change can be powerful enough to sweep a small town into oblivion, or irrelevance, if that’s just the way it’s meant to be. But anyone who thinks locally-owned businesses have nothing going for them should go visit the funky little shop down the street, or the retail establishment that seems like it’s been around forever yet is in a constant state of reinvention in a big-box world. This holiday season, you might find yourself buying Christmas presents from someone who donates to your child’s ball team, or who gathers food for the needy over the holidays, or who is happy to direct you to other interesting shops that otherwise you might never know existed. So yes, there are plenty of factors to consider as you hit the stores this Thanksgiving weekend. But the ability to find the things you want and need, at a good price, from people who’ll appreciate the business and be there when you need them — that’s something to be thankful for this holiday season, too.

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