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COURSEY: Overstuffed on holiday hype

I ate much more than I needed to on Thursday, which seems to be an annual trend. I'm starting to wonder if I might be developing a habit.

But while I worry about gustatorial gluttony at this time of year, an even greater concern is the economic feeding frenzy that now has crept backward into Thanksgiving from its traditional place in the Christmas season.

"Black Friday" has spawned "Gray Thursday." Some big-box stores opened as early as 8 p.m. Thursday, taking shoppers away from Thanksgiving dinner before the dishes were done.

Hearing this on the news on Thanksgiving night sent me rummaging through my brain in an attempt to remember how and when all of this got started. There once was, if my tryptophan-dulled memory serves me correctly, a time when the day after Thanksgiving was just a Friday. A holiday for some, to be sure, but not a High Holy Day of Deep Discounts worthy of a big-box campout and destination shopping excursion.

But it's also a slow news day, a day that finds government offices closed, newsroom staffs thin and assignment editors still suffering the after-effects of the food coma they succumbed to the evening before. So reporters and cameras are deployed to the Target and the Wal-Mart down the street, where crowds of shoppers wait in line for microphones and lenses to be shoved in their faces. This, in turn, creates a sense of urgency and excitement, prodding more and more shoppers to head out to the mall earlier and earlier, producing longer lines and more excitement and more news coverage and more advertising until, at some point, you have to wonder which came first – and why.

This symbiosis between retailers and shoppers and news and advertising supposedly is good for all. Black Friday (supposedly) is a reference to the day when retailers' accounting books "go into the black," or start showing a profit for the year. Shoppers who get to the stores early find the best deals (or so we're told). Newspapers and news channels tell the story of the day in their communities (or at least A story of the day) and all of that extra advertising turns their books black, too (we hope, if that's how we make our living). And, when the retailers add it all up and the news outlets report those results next week, we'll have a clear picture of how healthy the economy is this holiday season.

But is that really the case, or does it just seem so?

The Washington Post today posted in its "Wonkblog" a story under the headline, "Black Friday is a bunch of meaningless hype, in one chart." The chart, using data from Bloomberg and Thomson Datastream, purportedly shows that Black Friday sales results have little relationship to the overall retail sales during the holidays. Families have shopping budgets and retailers have advertising budgets – and whether they spend them on Nov. 23 or Dec. 23 makes little difference, the story argued.

For some, though, shopping on Black Friday has become as much a "tradition" as turkey on Thanksgiving. I guess there's no harm in that, as long as they aren't pulling out a Taser to fend off rivals for the last PlayStation or making their children camp in the snow waiting for Toys R Us to open. In fact, some shoppers find health benefits in the frenzy that is now spilling into Thanksgiving evening: "It's good to run around after you're done eating," Stan Stenchever told reporter Brett Wilkison outside of the Santa Rosa Sears store on Thursday.

But there may be even healthier ways to approach this holiday season, none of which involve setting up a pup tent on the sidewalk outside the mall. Saturday, for instance, is now dubbed "Small Business Saturday" (by financial giant American Express, no less) in an effort to point shoppers toward mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar businesses that see their sales increasingly leaking away to big-box and on-line retailers. Even closer to home, Sonoma County's Go Local Cooperative is a network focusing on independent and sustainable businesses in the community; you can find a list of members at sonomacounty.golocal.coop.


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