Sometimes I sit in the car outside Best Buy and watch in awe as blue-shirted clerks with hand trucks wheel big screen after big screen out to waiting SUVs and pickups. OK, it’s a little creepy, but at least I know I’m being creepy.
Retail Metrics Inc., an industry data analysis company, reports 67 percent of this year’s holiday shoppers earn less than $50,000.
They’re called “survivalists” in the trade because they arrive at the mall with very tight budgets after paying for life’s necessities. Still, they make up the largest block of holiday shoppers and are the key to retail success or failure. Big discounts and cheap credit keep them coming back for more — and keep millions in perpetual debt.
Once upon a time, America made things.
We made big things like steel for ships and tractors and turbines for hydroelectric plants. Our economy was based on production and boy did we produce! Cars, refrigerators, washing machines, TVs, telephones and toasters rolled off third shift assembly lines marked with the gold standard for quality, “Made in America.”
Now we just buy stuff.
Economists call it the “consumer economy” and every red-blooded American considers it his patriotic duty to spend us back to prosperity.
Old-fashioned notions like saving for a rainy day — which we’ve finally had — or using credit as a tool rather than the means to scratch every itch are not only passé, we’re told they’re actually bad for the country. Shopping has become a civic duty.
Yet, Black Friday sales were reported as sluggish, with market watchers suggesting the special nature of the annual orgy of consumerism has been diffused by retailers rolling out sale prices earlier than previous years.
Apparently the same is true for Cyber Monday, the day we’re supposed to empty our wallets buying online all the cool junk we didn’t buy at the mall over Thanksgiving.
If the three wise men were truly wise, they would have shopped at FrankincenseAndMyrrh.com.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t the usual fist fights, stabbings and trampling on Black Friday.
Mall violence has become as much a part of Christmas as midnight Mass and Aunt Helen’s bread pudding, with amped-up shoppers in full discount blood lust elbowing and scratching each other while grabbing the last of the bargain Barbies.
How long can this go on?
Our economy has ricocheted from one bubble to the next, with the dot-com boom giving way to a frenzy of day trading. Flipping houses became all the rage, leading to the housing bubble collapse and a hole millions are still trying to climb out of.
Is it possible we’re witnessing the end days of the “Buying Bubble?”
At some point we have to reach the saturation point. If you don’t have an iPhone by now, you’re never getting an iPhone.
Still, Amazon claims it sold 426 items per second on Cyber Monday; that’s 36.8 million boxes shuttling around the globe, filling up cabinets, kitchen shelves, closets, garages, storage units and, eventually, a blanket at someone’s yard sale.
The big sellers for Amazon this year have been the Miracle-Gro Aerogarden Kit, a dirt-free dome-shaped thing that lets you raise herbs in your kitchen. Other hot items include the Tovulo Ice Mold, a plastic orb that makes giant round ice cubes, and something called the Fitbit Flex Wireless Activity and Sleep Wristband that monitors what you do as if the NSA weren’t already monitoring what we do.
When dirtless herb garden domes and round ice cube makers are the hit of Christmas, I think it’s safe to say we’ve finally reached the tipping point.
I’m as guilty as anyone.
The other day it dawned on me I own seven refrigerators. Seven! How much Haagen-Dazs am I eating?
At some point even the seemingly insatiable American consumer is going to have had his fill. When the “Buying Bubble” bursts, what then for the U.S. economy?
Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sunday and Wednesday. He can be reached at: Doug@KABC.com.