It was midnight on a Black Friday and I was already eight hours into a shift. I smelled like sugar cookies laced with burnt plastic and my head ached from the overly saccharine scent of maple-roasted pecan and powdered sugar. My hands shook from the three cups of coffee I had already drank to stay awake, and there were still eight hours left to go in the shift. The “Greatest Christmas Hits” played on loop. My headache worsened.
I did my best to placate an angry customer, who was directing her vitriol over a coupon that had expired over a year ago at the cashier, a seasonal hire home from college for winter break who was working her first retail job. Meanwhile, I’m sure somewhere the C-suite executives and regional managers were probably cozily sleeping off their Thanksgiving turkey. Had I remembered to eat lunch? Or was it dinner? (Real answer: it was coffee, potato chips, and cookies.)
Finally, at 4 a.m., my shift ended, and I left Bath & Body Works at the Smith Haven Mall jittery, exhausted, and terrified that I would fall asleep at the wheel on the 45-minute drive home, which took an hour-and-a-half due to the roads congested with traffic from Black Friday shoppers who had yet to begin their holiday shopping. I would be back that evening, to help close the store. A double shift was highly encouraged. Opting out could mean that you would be treated as disposably as a returned, half-empty bottle of lotion.
There are countless problems with Black Friday worth talking about, such as how it promotes unsustainable overconsumption, how cheap prices often come at the cost of ethical production, and the problematic ways in which the mainstream media has disparaged these holiday shoppers. But the bigger issue, which is not at all exclusive to Black Friday, is how companies consistently disrespect their employees. Black Friday has become the reigning example of accepted employee abuse, and in a year when workers in every industry, at every level are finally—finally!—demanding better working conditions lest they quit (and a lot are quitting) it’s time we stop tolerating it.
Black Friday and the hellscape of holiday retail
It’s enough to make anyone bitter about the holidays, which are supposed to be a joyful time filled with magic, or at least the cringey seasonal rom-coms that I love to watch tell me so. In the retail world, Black Friday is the holiest day of the year. It’s an event not to miss, lest you experience the crushing weight of FOMO from not getting the best sales. (Real talk: the sales offered on Black Friday are actually no different from the best sales most stores offer periodically throughout the year.)
But, Black Friday has devolved into an entirely different beast. Now it’s Grey Thursday (which first crawled out from the depths of hell in 2012), Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the last Saturday before Christmas, Super Saturday. Some retailers, like Best Buy and Amazon, have kicked off their Black Friday sales early, putting even more pressure on employees during this frenzied time of year. The pressure is no longer just on in-store workers. Employees at Amazon fulfilment centers have faced notoriously poor wages and “anxiety through the roof” during this time of year, too, as detailed by the Guardian.
As the December holidays approached, retail hours got kicked into overdrive. Stores opened earlier and closed later. At our store, when new shipment arrived, the back door was often open for hours, chilling the break room and the cashiers with the bitter New York winter air, while we received stacks upon stacks of boxes with new stock.
Every day of December up until Christmas became a constant stream of overcrowded roads, aggressive drivers in parking lots, neverending lines, and the occasional angry, entitled customer for barely more than minimum wage. (At one point, the minimum wage did actually cover living expenses. But today, not even the proposed $15 wage is enough for the average American to get by on.)
The holidays weren’t even the worst of it. After New Year’s, the endless lines of customers shopping for presents turned into endless lines of returns. Anything at least semi-used was tossed in the trash. (The not-yet-fully-awakened environmentalist in me wept.) The company I worked for also implemented something called “on-call” scheduling—a block of time where you might have to work, but you wouldn’t really know up until 2 hours ahead of the start time if you were actually needed. This, of course, made work-life balance impossible because not calling was considered skipping a shift, regardless of whether or not you were needed. (The Atlantic reported in 2015 that L Brands, which changed its name to Bath & Body Works, Inc. this year, committed to end on-call shifts nationwide. According to many recent Glassdoor reviews, they still occur.)
Are we entitled to Black Friday?
My personal experience working in retail is just a microcosm of the mistreatment faced by workers throughout the country and across industries, from agriculture to food production, foodservice to healthcare, and more. But really, it’s about time to put an end to Black Friday for good. And this year, many employees have decided that they’ve had enough. There have been an unprecedented number of employee resignations, protests, strikes this year, and even a planned strike on Black Friday from the writing team at Wirecutter, sending a message to employers that the poor treatment of workers cannot go on.
Last year, socially distant customers pushed online Black Friday sales, which were already becoming more dominant, to a record high. (According to National Retail Federation Data, Thanksgiving weekend drew 186.4 million U.S. shoppers, down just 189.4 million in 2019. Still, that’s a higher number than 2018’s 165.8 million customers.) But this year, retailers are opening their doors to in-person shoppers once again, and in welcoming news, many of them plan to stay closed on Thanksgiving day.
While writing this article, I visited the website of the mall I used to work at and was pleased to see that it would be opening at 6 a.m. on Black Friday. A small victory. The surge in demands for better working conditions from employees is a good start, but respect needs to come from employers, and from customers, too. Shopping your values also means understanding how your shopping habits affect others.
Choosing to sit out Black Friday could send a message to retailers that it’s not the shopping Super Bowl marketers have convinced everyone that it is. And if you do choose to shop, try to shop small, and be kind. Retail and service workers are supporting themselves and families with this work—and often sacrificing time with their own loved ones to do it. Remember, nobody is entitled to be able to buy holiday presents at midnight on Black Friday, or even at 12 p.m. It’s a remarkable privilege, and one, quite frankly, that should be revoked, or at least, heavily reformed.
The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the author(s) and do not represent the policy or position of LIVEKINDLY.