Mood of the Market
I went home for Thanksgiving this year. My hometown is a mid-sized burb smack-dab in the middle of California, a little spot of bright red politics, traditional family values and industrialized farming bookended by the uber-liberal intellichic of the San Francisco Bay Area a few hours north, and the sleek, anything-goes polish of Hollywood a couple hours south.
What’s cool in my hometown is Friday-night high school football, Sunday morning church services, and big box store shopping galore. I once heard that the city has the largest number of grocery stores per capita of any city in the country, and I believe it. They’ve got more Wal-Marts and Targets in town than any five Bay Area towns combined, and they’ve got grocery stores inside the Wal-Marts and Targets, too! You cannot drive past a corner or bat an eye without a Super-something staring you down.
Unfortunately, neither can you drive down a residential street without seeing several "For Sale" signs of bank-owned foreclosed homes. At various times in the last couple of years, my hometown has ranked at the very top of the state’s and the nation’s lists of cities with the highest foreclosure rates. If that grocery store stat stunned you, consider this: My hometown had the highest rates of West Nile virus anywhere in the country last year, because of all the foreclosed homes with abandoned swimming pools (read: mosquito breeding grounds) sitting stagnant.
Against this backdrop, my decision to visit Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving — in light of my aversions to crowds, to shopping, in general, and to holiday shopping in specific — was either borderline insane or borderline brilliant. (Minus the borderline on both ends of the spectrum.) On the one hand was the lure of $200 off laptops multiplied by the three laptops I needed to purchase for home and business this season, boosted by the thought that if the local economy was as bad as I’d been hearing, perhaps the crowds wouldn’t be as severe as normal.
On the other hand? Reality. And reality was a store literally packed shoulder to shoulder with overheated people and overbreathed air. This store was so packed that I felt like a quarterback trying to find the hole in the defense in my effort to simply find a vacant square foot for my next footfall. And, of course, the computer section was in the corner of the store due kitty-corner to the entrance — the furthest possible distance from the front door.
It was a 20-minute-long, arduous, but scenic route, and I mean scenic in the most tragic manner possible. Along the way, I saw private security guards forming a human chain around the shoppers picking up their iPods with the ticket they’d waited in line for hours to get. I virtually had to step around and over a woman who had literally passed out in Small Electronics — and the crew of staffers hollering for medical help into their radios.
My husband, about 20 minutes behind me, met up with a disabled woman and her small child, looking for someone to avenge her against the shoppers who had plucked the toys she’d selected straight out of her hands. No joke.
Needless to say, my Dad and I got to the laptop line and learned that the tickets for the few sale items that were stocked had been handed out to shoppers who’d arrived two hours earlier, at 3 a.m. I considered picking up the other high-dollar/high-savings items on my list momentarily, then in one of those life moments where you realize with zero regret that you and your parent might be exactly the same, my eyes met my Dad’s, and we made the unspoken pact to get out of that store as quickly as humanly possible.
And that took us another 20 minutes, in a store where I could normally walk from end to end in two, three minutes max. Twenty minutes in which I realized that there is no item possessed by any store on this planet worth inserting my body into that situation ever again in this lifetime or the next.
While I will never repeat this "experience" again in action, I’ve been revisiting the scene of this crime by-and-against human kindness repeatedly in my head for the past few days. As a behavioral economic inquiry, why were so many people — many of whom are undoubtedly broke — in such desperate pursuit of these things that they were willing to show up at midnight or 3 a.m. or 5 a.m., push and shove their fellow citizens, and even toy-jack a disabled mother right in front of her little girl? How many of these people, I wondered, are struggling with or missing their mortgage payments this month? How many are out of work?
The bigger question I keep revisiting is whether this "by-any-means-necessary, must-have" consumerism is simply the retail version of the real estate lust that led so many of us to buy ever bigger homes as long as we could afford the next month’s payment, on the assumption that down the road we could refi or make more money to keep up with the obligation. And as soon as that question pops up, my mind answers that question with another question, Dr. Phil’s twangy catchphrase, "How’s that working for ya?"
It ain’t. Not at all. I’ve been talking and writing for the last year about the need to return to the overarching aim of our real estate decisions: ostensibly, happiness and a better life. After this Black Friday experience, though, I think it makes sense for us to revisit and refresh our memories as to the ultimate aim of all our consumer decisions.
Holiday shopping is supposed to be all about the vision of a Christmas tree, menorah or other cozy family scene celebrating abundance and love through selfless gift-giving. The scene in that store, however, was all about panic, lack and scarcity — the fear that there may not be enough for me, so I have to claw, shove, debt and even steal toys from a disabled person — in front of the child for whom the toy was intended — in order to get mine.
Do the retailers encourage this? Of course they do. But honestly, they’re just doing their job: trying to churn up business in this bleak marketplace. This is one area where we cannot point the finger at Wall Street, Madison Avenue or any other big, corporate or governmental other. Neither Bush nor Obama, Gingrich nor Pelosi is to blame this time, no matter what you normally believe. The behavior speaks for itself — we simply must do better.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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