It’s Black Friday for Consumers’ Wallets

11/23/2009 12:01 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Terry Savage

Author, The Savage Truth on Money

There’s a reason they call it Black Friday. Unlike stock market history, where a “black Monday” is synonymous with disaster, the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush is designed to commemorate the surge of cash into retailers that turns a bad year into a profitable one.

Will this year be any different? You’d think that consumers would have learned their lesson: The bill comes due in January! But even in a deep recession, retailers are making plans to stay open for 24 hours and offer even bigger “bargains.” 

The entire idea of consumers stampeding into stores brings to mind a herd of sheep, running blindly and following each other off a cliff! 

As a financial writer, I’ve received lots of press releases offering “shopping tips” to consumers.  Here are but a few from one group encouraging shoppers to “start their homework now on products and prices” to help find the “real deals.” 

They tell you to let your fingers do the walking to Web sites like www.blackfriday.gottadeal.com to find the best deals. They even suggest that you draw a map of the best routes for early morning shoppers: Here’s advice from ConsumerWorld.org:

“Toys R Us opens at midnight, Old Navy opens at 3am, and Sears and Kohl's open at 4am. Wal-Mart will be open 24 hours, but sale items will not be available until 5am. Plot your route from store to store based on store opening times, and since quantities are very limited, arrive before the doors open. Send family members to different stores if opening times conflict.”

In other words, retailers and their advocates are hoping this shopping season will be “business as usual”—even though we’re in the midst of the steepest recession since the Great Depression.  Can they be serious? Will Americans really fall for this again, now?

Sadly, the answer is likely to be yes. Even though we’re on track for an estimated 1.5 million consumer bankruptcies in 2009, the “shop ‘til you drop” message is revving up for another year.

If consumers were as afraid of this bankruptcy epidemic as they are of swine flu, they’d be locking up their wallets and credit cards and staying home. But the words “sale” and “deal” overcome even the greatest fears and inhibitions.

Sure, the “consumer advocates” are sending out reminders about making a list and checking it twice. But if shoppers still haven’t gotten the message about the dangers of debt, do you think that a few holiday press releases will stop the shopping surge?

While economists predict same-store sales will be flat or rise modestly this holiday season, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that consumers will continue to knock the doors down, when all is said and done, to make themselves feel good for at least a moment. 

After all, the bills don’t come until January. And maybe by then there will be a consumer “cash for clunkers” program from the government to bail us out. We’ve been well-trained to think that way! 

What’s your bet on holiday shopping? Have Americans learned a lesson? Can we wean our economy away from consumer “quick fixes”? Please join the conversation and have your say.

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