Boycott Black Friday

If you’ve arrived at this blog post, chances are it’s because a smug internet know-it-all has pointed you towards it. Well, they may be smug, but they’re right. Black Friday is a terrible way to get things you want, and here’s why.

It’s a bait-and-switch scam

In case you don’t know, this is a very old con which involves advertising a bargain purchase. When a prospective buyer shows up to nab the bargain, they’re told that it isn’t available any more, and pointed at something more expensive instead, or something they don’t particularly want. Does that sound familiar? There’s even a retail industry term for the cheap, limited availability items that get people out to shops on Black Friday – “doorbusters”. Lovely.

It’ll make you happy for precisely the amount of time it takes your credit card bill to arrive

Let’s broadly divide products up into two categories – things that enable, and everything else. If a product lets you do something you couldn’t do before, brilliant. For example, the invention of the camera let ordinary people record their lives, reimagine them, and has generally been a positive addition to the world.

So many products fall short of this transformative standard. They are not game-changers, they just let you do something you could already do, maybe faster, maybe more efficiently, but fundamentally the same thing.

If you’re spending on an upgraded, improved version of a creative product, that’s OK. That really is. It might help you get better results, remove frustrations and make you more productive than before.  But lots of stuff doesn’t let you do that. It only lets you consume. A TV doesn’t let you make your own TV programmes.  A microwave doesn’t let you choose where your food comes from. A computer game lets you live out a predefined selection of experiences. There is a big body of research to support the idea that autonomy and self-determination are crucial to living a happy life. If you’re buying a product because an advert told you to, which only lets you passively view what other people are doing and making, it’s probably not going to make you transcend to Nirvana.

The people who made it and sold it were miserable

Let’s keep this brief, because the chances are you already know this, but don’t care. You know what a shower of bastards Amazon are to their employees (and how their agencies are even worse), how 18 workers under the age of 25 at Apple supplier Foxconn  attempted suicide over the course of 11 months, how badly large retailers squeeze their suppliers. But you’ve rationalized it away, because you’re better than them. You have a decent job, you worked hard to get it, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy the same rights as you is inferior.

Not so. In reality, you’re one of the dwindling number of workers who are still enjoying the legacy of the labour rights movement of the first three quarters of the 20th century. Minimum wages, guaranteed hours, paid leave for holidays and parenthood, grievance procedures… all of these are things that we take for granted. But don’t, as for the employees of many large retailers, things are very different. And companies in the countries with strong employee rights are taking note, and counting the costs they could save, and lobbying governments to get rid of them. By voting for a system where goods are cheap because people are treated like dirt, you make it more likely that one day, it’ll be happening to you.

You’re only getting a bargain because you were ripped off yesterday

Big retail giveth, and big retail taketh away. There’s a simplistic narrative about capitalism which paints it as a constant battle to be the most efficient, cut prices more than your competitors, and bend over backwards to make your customers happy. This isn’t borne out in real life. Companies talk to each other, industries create their own standards and cartels fix prices. Technically, price fixing is illegal in the UK, but that doesn’t mean that when you buy, say, a £20 bottle of perfume, you’re paying a cost that fairly reflects the raw materials, the marketing* and the work required to make it.

*OK, maybe the marketing.

The stuff you’re buying is tomorrow’s crap

In the words of Professor David Mackay, advisor on energy issues to the UK government:

“Stuff passes through three stages. First, a new-born stuff is displayed in shiny packaging on a shelf in a shop. At this stage, stuff is called “goods.” As soon as the stuff is taken home and sheds its packaging, it undergoes a transformation from “goods” to its second form, “clutter.” The clutter lives with its owner for a period of months or years. During this period, the clutter is largely ignored by its owner, who is off at the shops buying more goods. Eventually, by a miracle of modern alchemy, the clutter is transformed into its final form, rubbish.”

This transformation didn’t used to happen so quickly. But during the 20th century, product designers discovered two very important techniques for increasing profit : fashion, and planned obsolescence.

Fashion works by showing you images of stuff that are superficially different to the other stuff you already own, accompanied by exciting words and pictures of desirable lifestyles. Function is nothing to do with fashion – how many people measure the fluid capacity of their tableware, or ask to see the results of DPA tests on the clothes they’re wearing? It just works by telling you that if you have stuff that looks a certain way, you suck. Fashion is also an amazing boon to product designers, as every 20 years they can remake something that’s already been designed, and sell it as “retro”.

Planned obsolescence will be familiar to anyone who’s ever owned an iPod. What it means is that at some point, the product you bought will break, and cannot be fixed. This shouldn’t be confused with stuff wearing out. Rechargeable batteries have a finite number of cycles, after which they won’t store energy and need to be replaced. That’s not necessarily the end of the product: you just get a new battery and carry on. However, if the product you bought has planned obsolescence, you won’t be able to replace this battery. There will be no instructions in the user manual; often there’s no way of opening the gadget’s cover without physically breaking it. Manufacturers also speed up a product’s obsolescence by making replacement parts that are specific to that, then after a few years, they simply stop producing them. Unless you’ve got a 3D printer, TS. You need to go out and BUY A NEW ONE.

You don’t HAVE to buy anything

Black Friday bargains are not, by and large, essentials. Bigger TVs, games consoles and tablets are all standard Black Friday fare. For 2015, Maplin are focusing on an area that they call “adult gadgets”. Where do “adult gadgets” sit on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?  You might want this shit, but you don’t need it. Be honest with yourself.

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