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Shopping for deals — and meaning — on Black Friday | Editorial

While economists obsess over whether Black Friday sales will exceed last year’s, it’s worth considering other dimensions of the season that tend to fall through the cracks.

Black Friday shoppers look for bargains the old-fashioned way at the Cherry Hill Mall.
Black Friday shoppers look for bargains the old-fashioned way at the Cherry Hill Mall.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

Friday is the shoppiest day of the year, not just in the activity, but in our obsession over just how many dollars holiday shoppers will part with. Black Friday is a lot of things, but mostly, it’s a canary — an illustration of consumer confidence and the strength of the economy.

As those dollars get rung up, counted, and analyzed, we shouldn’t count on a precise or even logical picture of this sector to emerge. For example, despite increasingly high mountains of Amazon delivery boxes, we still live in a world where people line up at dawn (or earlier), pressing against the glass doors of retailers — and each other — waiting for bargains. Those doors include a brand new mall just launched, against all current trends, in the center of Philadelphia.

While economists obsess over whether sales will exceed last year’s — and with the exception of 2008, expansion of holiday sales has been virtually nonstop year after year — it’s worth considering other dimensions of the season that tend to fall through the cracks.

For example, partly what drives the crush of bargain shoppers on Black Friday is the fact that while the economy is strong, wages and wage growth aren’t. That’s true nationally and in Philadelphia. A recent Center City District report reaffirmed the city’s decadelong job growth, but pointed out that more than half have been for jobs paying $35,000 or less. Middle-class wage jobs accounted for only a quarter of the job growth in the city.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia’s job growth has largely been low-wage, report finds

Those lower-wage workers aren’t necessarily the Amazon Prime members that will be fueling a record year in online sales. It’s only been a profitable company since 2004 but in that time Amazon has virtually redrawn the retail marketplace (as well as the labor market). With its constant bar-raising with two day, one day, same-day, and then one-hour delivery, Amazon has helped devastate the brick-and-mortar marketplace.

The Amazon effect on traditional retail has been bemoaned for a while now, but we are also starting to pay attention to the negative impact the company’s business model could be having on the environment. The deliveries of millions of packages have consequences, especially in urban centers like ours, bringing increased congestion, pollution, and climate impacts.

Further, the pressure on Amazon warehouse workers for speed and efficiency has troubling labor implications. A report by Reveal and Center for Investigative Reporting scrutinized injury records from about a quarter of the company’s fulfillment centers and found that serious injuries were more than double the national average for the industry.

The point is not to demonize Amazon, but to be conscious of the uncounted toll of one-click shopping.

A decline in social interactions that brick and mortar shopping imposes is another less tangible but damaging impact. We’d do well to remember that the marketplace has ancient roots, valued not just for commerce but for the cultural and social benefits of gathering.

Amazon might be a culprit, but our own appetite for retail therapy should be subject to some self-examination. Some deals may be just too expensive, and not worth it at any price.