By at least one measure, the ominous onset of the holiday shopping season was rated a success. As a Time headline put it, it precipitated "Only 1 Death, 15 Injuries." But now that any number of consumer casualties can be portrayed as a triumph, it may be time to reflect and reconsider.
Moreover, the exercise doesn't seem to have been particularly successful by its own standards. A survey by the National Retail Federation estimated that spending from Thanksgiving through last Sunday fell 2.9 percent compared with last year. A ShopperTrak survey predicted a modest gain of 2.3 percent, but also found that Black Friday's ignominious creep into Thanksgiving had redistributed purchases instead of boosting them.
Despite the economic importance of holiday commerce, door-busting kickoff ceremonies are yielding diminishing returns. And they come at a cost. The website Black Friday Death Count has aggregated reports of seven deaths and 90 injuries linked to the day since 2006.
Of course, the number of casualties is small compared with the vast hordes involved. But casualty counts fail to capture all the mall brawls that stop short of hospitalization, including the recent donnybrook at Northeast Philadelphia's Franklin Mills, notable because one shopper-combatant employed a stun gun.
And then there's the less tangible but more general misery inflicted on bystanders and employees, who now endure these conditions on the once-sacrosanct Thanksgiving holiday as well as the days afterward.
Perhaps Christmas' commercial kickoff will eventually bleed into Halloween, with macabre themes to match. After all, contrary to the folk etymology that links the term Black Friday to in-the-black profitability, the day was actually named by Philadelphia civil servants dreading the crush of shoppers from the suburbs.
Dartmouth economist Charles Wheelan argued last week in U.S. News and World Report that the season's spread is analogous to an arms race in which individual rivals' rational behavior leads to an irrational and harmful collective outcome. He concluded that governments should require stores to close on Thanksgiving to keep it from becoming Gray Thursday.
But retailers may be killing their own black-letter day by willing it to metastasize in all directions. Online sales on last week's "Cyber Monday," now stretching to "Cyber Week," are growing, which may further Black Friday's gradual, and not very regrettable, fade to black.