Insane Shoppers, Irresponsible Store Management

UPDATE: I don’t know why this always seems to happen with mattt, but once again I have posted on a news item that mattt also posted on. Sorry, mattt. At least our two posts are somewhat different in focus.

UPDATED AGAIN: Two more people dead, at a Toys ‘r Us in Palm Desert, California, this time as the result of a fight between two customers that was settled with guns. “If this is shopping,” Mark Silva writes, “we might be better off with a recession.”

As James Joyner notes, this madness seems to be an annual occurrence at this time of year. Joyner also correctly faults the management of this Wal-Mart, as well as the mob of shoppers, for the conditions that led to “such predictable results.”

Libby puts it more strongly:

The 200 or so crazed shoppers literally took the doors off the building in their rush to get that $600 wide screen TV. The store should be held criminally responsible for the deaths for creating the shopping frenzy and failing to provide proper crowd control. Sending a couple of underpaid, overworked stock clerks to hold back the mob is nothing short of negligent homicide.

Maha drily reminds us that “big crowds can be dangerous.”

When people are densely packed, there’s always a danger that someone will accidentally be injured or even killed. As population on our planet is tending to both increase and concentrate in urban areas, we could use some public education aimed at people explaining why pushing and shoving and stampeding generally are not to be tolerated.

All true. But I’ve been thinking (being the analytical, rather than the pragmatic, sort) that there is deeper meaning behind this kind of unhinged response to coveted big-ticket “stuff” that normally costs thousands of dollars and for one day only can be had for only a few hundred. People have such a desperate need to have what everyone else has (or what they imagine everyone else has); that seems to be how we measure psychic belonging and emotional safety in our society.

Sometimes you can find someone thinking along the same lines in a place you would never, in a million years, expect to find commonality. Right now, that place is The Anchoress, a blog written by a woman who is quite far to the right — politically, socially, and religiously. I couldn’t believe it when I found myself recognizing some of my own thoughts in her post on Black Friday in general, and the Long Island Wal-Mart lethal stampede in particular, but there ya go — sweet mystery of life:

I wondered why things seemed so “quiet” on the internet and then remembered, oh yeah – Black Friday. I give all due credit to those hardy souls who are willing rise from their after-Thanksgiving exhaustion to brave the stores – particularly those awful “earlybird” sales – and get a large bit of Christmas shopping done. I tried it one year and decided, no. My abhorrence of crowds and my sense of personal dignity just couldn’t allow me to be herded about or shoved into running crowds to get 25% off on a sweater my niece probably would wear once.

I once actually saw two women quarrel over an item, just like in the movies, while Christmas shopping. I was very young, and knew everything at the time, so I blamed it on American materialism and its corruptive influence on the soul. Materialism CAN corrupt the soul, of course – as can capitalism untempered by compassion – but as I’ve matured, I’ve come to reject the easy and cynical course that finds “America” and its values to be at the core of every negative situation I encounter. Instead, I have decided to think of the aggression of the battling shoppers to be rooted in vulnerability. They’ve decided they want to purchase a particular item for someone they love. Perhaps this is how they express love. Perhaps they believe, subconsciously, that this is the only way they can be loved back. Perhaps this is a budgeted item and the only way they can afford to purchase it is at a heavily reduced price and – because they love – they’re willing to fight for it.

Looked at in this way, the “crassness” of all of this consumer excess seems less clear, and one finds oneself – as one does all too often, if one is paying attention – in the middle of yet another Holy Mystery. Love is the highest human aspiration, but when it lacks anchoring in something bigger than itself, it tends to drift a bit and take on some detritus (doubt, hurt, anger, self-hate) that gets into the workings and distorts the navigation, a little; in that case, suddenly love can lead us away from, and not toward, our best selves. And then where are you? You’re tugging on a toy with another shopper and sending all sorts of messages to your family and to the world-at-large, that you never intended to send. About yourself and your values, about your society, even about your nation.

Our excesses are usually rooted in love that has been somehow hurt or hurtful, [emphasis in original] and our healings almost always come about in surprising ways, if we simply allow God in and work diligently to follow his lead.

Now, see, my understanding of god, and the way I experience my own spiritual feelings, is about as different from The Anchoress’s as you can possibly get. For one thing, I’m Jewish and I think she’s Catholic, and Jews just don’t use this kind of language to talk about god or their religious beliefs. Hers is a kind of proselytizing language that is much more Christian than Jewish.

But I think she hits the nail squarely on the head in her suggestion that the absolute desperation to be one of the lucky, fortunate, blessed few who will get the $600 widescreen tv, or the $2000 laptop reduced to $400, comes from a very vulnerable, emotionally needy place.

I don’t agree, though, with her conclusion that “allowing God in and diligently following his lead” is the only way — or at the least, in her view, the best way — to address this need for love and connection. If it works, fine. And I couldn’t be happier for those who do find their answers that way. But it’s not an approach that works for everyone, and not necessarily because they are not “trying” hard enough.

I believe god exists in the world, but I don’t understand telling people who feel lonely or alienated or unloved to “give it up to God” because “God loves you.” My feeling is, okay fine — that and $2.00 will get me a ride on the NYC subway. I think the answers — to the extent that there are any reliable ones — lie deeper and are more complex than that. I think that contemporary Western society is very fragmented and anonymous and alienating. Objectively, a sense of community, civic purpose, and the common good is largely missing in our lives, and I don’t think it has always been that way. I am convinced that government, and society as a whole, has a role to play in developing the policies and modeling the attitudes that will start to ameliorate the difficulties inherent in a society as individualistic as this one is.

I’m still working on the specifics.

Cross-posted at Liberty Street.

One Response to “Insane Shoppers, Irresponsible Store Management”

  1. PB says:

    How did that saying go? “Keep Christ in Christmas”…or was it “Keep Christmas in Kmart?”


  1. Shopping as it should be… - [...] place in Chattanooga to see and be seen! And as far as I know, not a single person was…

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