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Can America afford to shop?
January 19, 2006
Tomorrow is another busy day. I must get to the shops by eight," said Paul, my American friend.
I looked at him in surprise.
"But tomorrow is 26th December, the day after Christmas, Paul. Surely, your shopping expeditions for gifts must be over," I said.
Paul and me meet in the neighborhood park on our morning walks and sometimes have a chat. That such casual conversations are possible is one of the attractions of living in San Francisco and Paul is my source sometimes for exploring the mystiques of the American Universe.
All of December Paul had looked busy and harried and had often complained about his inability for a leisurely walk in December, the month of Christmas.
"Oh, you don't know. December 26 is a very special day,'' he now said with a chuckle. "It is the day for returning gifts that you don't want and get something in exchange, or to use gift vouchers that people may have given as a present. It is also the first day for post-Christmas sales and shops open actually at 6 am," he explained patiently. Christmas day was one day with no shopping, he added.
"Well, I learn something every day,'"I said in wonder shaking my head.
True enough. December has been an educative and exhausting month. Why, exhausting? By the shopping. Don't get me wrong. Not by actual shopping as in spending money. By seeing others shop -- the energy, the concentration, the dedication to this all consuming activity -- seeing this has left me exhausted.
Is shopping in America different from elsewhere in this era of globalisation, where every country and customer are increasingly the same, if not in amounts spent, in the aspirations and attitudes?
It may be so and I do read in the Indian magazines stories of spectacular splurging by our affluent classes, but I still suspect that America is different. Or it is perhaps the archetype.
Shopping is more of a national trait here than in most parts of this world. The, anthropological, social or psychological reasons may be many, and are indeed the subject of much research, but first let us absorb some astonishing numbers.
The total retail sales during the 'holiday season' -- November to December -- was around $439 billion according to the American Retail Federation which comes up with a lot of fascinating data on consumer spending patterns.
If you are like me who cannot appreciate such big numbers here is a comparison. India's total GDP is around $600 billion.
Look at it another way. According to researchers, in this season 130 million Americans went out shopping out of the total population of 294 million. On an average they spent $738 (approximately Rs 30,000 each!) buying gifts or pleasing themselves in this season.
Why am I saying 'holiday season' or 'Season' instead of good old Christmas? This has become a silly political issue. As obviously not all Americans are Christians and more significantly since many influential Americans are Jewish, a movement has started that it is better to say 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas'.
As it happens, there is also a major Jewish celebration around this period. Some groups either for reasons of political correctness or intellectual sophistication or commercial motivation started giving a push for the phrase 'holiday season'.
These fads generate a lot of debate and this year there was a raging battle between the Christian right and the secular holidaywallahs. I tell my friends of how in India, a nation with a small Christian community, we have all -- Hindus, Muslims and Christians -- happily said Merry X-mas to each other without a second thought.
Whether it is the Holiday spirit or the Santa Claus spirit, sales have boomed in these months. There is a pattern and a ritual to all this buying as my friend Paul had explained to me one day. He was talking about setting his alarm clock at 4 am and I asked him why.
"Tomorrow is Black Friday," he had said. It was a long weekend in late November for Thanksgiving another quintessentially American tradition. Apparently this day was a holy day in the annual calendar as it marked the first day for the frenzy of Christmas shopping.
Stores plan their strategy like a war campaign and the discounts that they offer for the early customers -- at the dark hour of 5 am -- on this day are held in utter secrecy. The buyers also plan their moves carefully and the early morning air is rife with tension at the store fronts of venerable retailers such as WalMart or Target.
As the doors open there is a scuffle, a scramble and hordes of shoppers rush to lay their hands on the few deep-discounted plasma television screens or washing machines or what have you.
It is only the stout in body and brave at heart who can excel in this round, the first round of buying for the season.
"Why call it Black Friday then?" I had asked Paul. "It sounds like a tragic anniversary of a terrorist attack."
"Because the businesses make a huge profit, that day and it turns their accounts black," he had explained. Apparently black is good in accounting and has nothing to do with black money.
The next major day in the consumer cycle is 'Cyber Monday' after the long weekend in November. This is the day when people return to their offices after the holiday and using the superior computers at office and the free broadband access, place orders for buying online. As the shopping is increasingly done on-ine, the cyber aspect of it is now a new market trend.
These are the organised and efficient shoppers. As Christmas approaches other kind of shoppers also slowly wake up. These last minute shoppers who don't do much research or price comparison are referred to as 'impulse buyers' or 'present hedonists'. They are every sales person's dream.
It is an unwritten rule of America that everybody has to shop for Christmas and buy gifts for everyone else. If money makes the world go around, as the old saying goes, verily, Christmas makes the money go around. If Christmas had not existed, the retailers would have invented one.
Rich as they are, can Americans afford such quantities of shopping? Not really.
The current net savings rate in America is minus one percent or in other words people are spending more than they are earning and simply putting the deficit on their credit cards. The net savings rate in India is in the range of 20 per cent. This is where the attitudinal aspects come in.
As you would expect, there are tons of theory and reams of research on the psychology of shopping. The mainstream analysis -- I suspect heavily subsidised by the trade and industry -- is to argue that shopping is good for the soul. 'I shop and therefore I am' as Descartes might have said.
Man is essentially a void always wanting something. A 'want' is more than a 'need' and to Want is to be Human.
When you go out and fulfill this want by buying something, you validate yourself, according to this philosophy of the consumer imperative. I am giving the basics and there are more evolved schools which say that 'if you buy a book, you are validating yourself as an intellectual; if you buy art, as an art lover and if a dress, as a fashion model.'
The mantra is: Go and buy and the instant gratification is good for the Soul.
It must be stated for the record that as a reaction there is also an emerging movement called the 'Buy Nothing Day'. This minority view is to despair at the rampant consumerism, to take pledges not to buy anything during the Christmas season and to try to organise pickets in front of major stores.
What is my take on all this? By instinct, upbringing, and above all, necessity, I am an abstinent. 'Buy Nothing today' reflects my personal temperament, my ancient tradition and my modest budget.
But what is this I hear on the radio, even as I write this? 50% off on the new Nikon Digital camera? I must hurry and check it out.
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
B S Prakash