How Black Friday Stays Dark

If there’s a day set aside to celebrate consumerism every year, today is that day. Its unofficial name — “Black Friday” — conveys with surprising honesty how the power has shifted in modern commerce. Spoiler alert: it’s not about you.

“Black” makes anything — even a Friday — sound ominous, secretive, shadowy. We unconsciously assume that what follows will be bad news. But it stuck anyway. Shoppers and sellers look forward to Black Friday. This adopted nickname came straight out of the accounting department, which doesn’t happen very often.

If you’ve ever looked at a spreadsheet prepared by a professional, negative numbers are printed in red. Red numbers along the bottom line mean you’re losing money. Black numbers show that you’ve turned a profit. Red: bad; black: good.

On this day each year, businesses hope to turn a profit. Now that the Christmas shopping season has begun, those year-to-date profit numbers should begin turning from red to black. Not to belabor the point, but it’s all about the numbers.

Now that you know the day is specifically celebrating the numbers (and not the people or the purchases themselves), you might look at your role in the rite a little bit differently.

I’m reminded of a “Far Side” cartoon with a dowdy couple being carried by celebrating savages in a caldron toward a bonfire. The wife says, “The natives were thrilled when we told them we were Virginians!” A small misunderstanding sometimes can have large consequences.

As a consumer, contemplate for a moment who’s on the other end of the exchange. Are you dealing with a maker, a merchant, or a mass marketer? Each offers something different.

No community in America has a better collection of makers than Saturday Market and its indoor holiday extension, Holiday Market. The person offering earrings or scented soaps or decoupaged light switch plates made them. Only makers are invited to sell. You’re paying for a literal expression of time and talent. That’s commerce at its most basic and intimate level.

Next Saturday, Dec. 6, Lane Library League’s 15th annual Authors & Artists Fair brings a second set of makers to the fairgrounds. It’s an embarrassment of riches and you’re invited to go straight to the source. We should all be grateful we have that opportunity.

If makers can’t give you what you’re looking for, local merchants want to earn your business. They’ve shopped for their customers, looking for the items they believe will entice you. It might be some earrings that will go well with a sweater you bought recently, or a soap that smells like your favorite herbs.

We have some great merchants in our area, from the many locally owned boutiques at the 5th Street Public Market to employee-owned stores like Bi-Mart and Winco. The merchant seeks to know you and what you like. Sales are the only way the owner can earn a profit.

Not so with mass marketers. They are publicly traded corporations, so they make money if their stock rises. Stockholders call the shots. Customers are just part of their formula. If the company sells more socks or baby diapers than anyone else in the world, they may not even earn a profit on their “loss leaders.” It’s a numbers game.

Nobody wants to feel like they’re only a number, so mass marketers have learned to disguise it. Greeters smile and make eye contact. Cashiers use your name if you pay with a check or a credit card. Do they care about you? Only if there are enough others who are exactly like you.

Growing their market share often trumps immediate profits. As long as their stock is rising, their future is secure. Profits certainly matter, but dominance matters more. Do you need proof? We now have behemoths who care so little about short-term profits that they give away their products in return for your attention and loyalty.

Google, Facebook and Twitter are worth billions. Yet they never asked you for a dime — at least not directly. The less you think about or understand that exchange, the better it is for mass marketers. On Black Friday, darker is better.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.