Too much stuff? Never

By Karen Heller

We are fast approaching the most meaningful, emotional, important holiday of the year. I speak, naturally, of Black Friday.

This year, it’s Bleak Friday. The nation’s on sale.

E-mail deals pop up daily. There are offers of free shipping. Fliers jam mail slots. Stores host surprise party sales. “Everything’s 30 percent off, today only,” the clerk will tell you. Except it’s true tomorrow and the next day, too.

The problem with marking down all merchandise 30 percent or 40 percent is that it makes you suspect everything was overpriced to begin with. Also, greedily: Why not 60 percent?

“Stores are stuffed to the gills with inventory,” says Wharton professor Stephen Hoch. “You’re a moron if you go into a store, any store, and don’t try to negotiate.”

A great irony of contemporary capitalism is that what’s good for the U.S. economy is bad for the individual. Americans should save, but the economy is dependent on spending. The austere and greedy parts of the soul are duking it out, with greed ceding not an inch.

Personal consumption is 70 percent of our gross domestic product because, apparently, we forget to make stuff other people wanted. The rest of the GDP consists of the government and the few people who managed to save and invest, only to lose 40 percent of it now.

This behavior may be changing, despite such seductions. “People feel that they should be conservative. It’s the right thing to do even if, personally, they’re not feeling the challenges,” says consumer business expert Tara Weiner, managing partner of Deloitte’s Philadelphia office. “It just doesn’t feel like a time of nicety spending.”

In other words, it’s a lousy time to have a holiday.

Weiner forecasts that most market sectors will be down for the crucial holiday period, responsible for 20 percent to 40 percent of annual retail sales. The only exceptions, she sees, are large discounters, warehouse clubs and, with more people eating at home, supermarkets.

Oh, and Urban Outfitters.

What recession?

What cockroaches are to the environment, adolescents are to the marketplace. If they know there’s a recession, they don’t care. Let somebody else deal with the mess.

“We’re getting back to some core values of focusing more on family, not shopping,” Weiner says. “There was probably a need to scale back. All you need to do is look at all the public storage.” What is public storage but a junk hut?

Consumers have lost confidence, and they’re bored, Hoch found in a recent study. “It’s all the same stuff.” We’ve lost the thrill. TD Bank economist Joel Naroff wonders “whether people can stay irrationally depressed for an extended period of time.”

Great. We’ve gone from irrational exuberance to irrational depression in eight years. But, wait, who says we’re irrational?

X Karen Heller is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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