Markets and Morality

Ignore Black Friday’s snobby critics. In a free market, consumers vote with their feet


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This weekend saw the fallout from “Black Friday”: a day that conjures up images of keen shoppers scrambling to be first in the door at 5am to secure that half-price LED 50-inch TV, while scrums of people fight tooth and nail for the last discounted kettle.

This is how we usually characterise this annual sales fest, ever since Asda led the way in bringing it over from the US in 2013.

Ignoring that it provides an opportunity for people to purchase items that they might otherwise be unable to afford, many critics believe Black Friday promotes dirty consumerism and panders to the worst instincts of people who don’t know what’s good for them.

It is not unique in this way. As with many other imports from our US friends – from McDonalds to rap music – there is considerable snobbery towards successful market brands or events deemed to Americanise British culture, be it with cheap food, distasteful music, or mass sales.

Black Friday is primarily seen as “offensive” because of the fighting and physical ugliness it provokes. This was – and remains – a concern, but a fixable one nevertheless. Black Friday is no different to any other event drawing in large crowds of people. It is the responsibility of the organisers, in this case shop-owners, to ensure it is managed safely.

Now that more and more people are choosing to take advantage of these sales online (last year, footfall in physical stores declined by almost five per cent and that looks set to drop again today), critics have shifted their target to false advertising and arguments that shoppers are being exploited.

This week, “retail advisers” and “shopping gurus” (whoever they are) have been on our screens, warning that Black Friday is not the day for getting the best deals. This may well be true, and their advice to check price comparison sites is constructive. What is worrying is the preachy tone that accompanies it.

British adults have become desensitised to being patronised by ‘experts’. One commentator actually used the phrase “if you don’t need a product, keep your credit card in your pocket”, just as a teacher might scold a school child to think twice about whether they’re actually hungry before they eat the contents of their lunchbox during breaktime.

In an increasingly paternalistic world – with sugar taxes, advertising restrictions, and minimum alcohol pricing – it has never been more necessary to remind ourselves of the importance of personal autonomy, and a dose of “Econ 101”.

Rational choice theory suggests that individuals take in all available information, costs and benefits to determine their preferences. They then make choices according to these preferences. In the case of retail sales, most people know what they need and at what price point they can afford it. The beauty of this is that they have the freedom to choose.

On Black Friday, people vote with their feet – and the statistics speak for themselves. Spending is expected to increase again this year by roughly £3bn. If people felt they didn’t get a good deal last year, they would be unlikely to fall into the same trap again. More retailers than ever are getting in on the act. So while there might be some questionable deals around, on the whole Black Friday isn’t the con some would have us believe.

Ultimately, sales – in whatever form they may take – are an opportunity for consumers to save and a useful mechanism for retailers to make profits and shift unsold stock. Whether we participate is a choice that all shoppers should be able to make, free from paternalism and judgment.

We live in a material world. Let’s embrace it.

A version of this article first appeared on City AM.

Head of Communications

Nerissa is Head of Communications at the IEA. Prior to joining the IEA, Nerissa was the Development Manager at Business for Britain, and then at Vote Leave where her responsibilities were primarily focused on recruiting support for the campaigns by organising events, and taking the lead on focussed regional and sector specific initiatives. She studied English Literature at the University of Southampton and then went on to obtain an MSc in Public Policy from UCL.


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