On Thursday night, all across the States, families were brought together in a post-food coma. All was still, the only activity the flickering of the television, broadcasting something suitably uplifting for Thanksgiving. However, tens of thousands of Americans had somewhere better to be. Down the shops.
Last Friday was Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping event on the US calendar. The four-day weekend is a bender of orgiastic spending: according to a survey by the National Retail Federation, around 141 million adults shopped over four days, and individuals spent an average of $407 (£248) over the weekend. Total spending was expected to hit $57.4 billion last night.
And many shops – for example, the behemothic Macy's – start their sales at 8pm on Thanksgiving night. Discounts and incentives are aggressive, much like the shoppers. Last year, two people were shot in Tallahassee, Florida, in a dispute over a parking space. In 2008, a New York Walmart employee was trampled by a crowd of 2,000 shoppers storming in when the superstore opened at 5am. This year, there were stabbings in a Virginia car park. Customers tweeted videos of carnage. Thanksgiving has been nicknamed "Gray Thursday", suggesting its bleak transformation from family gathering to another day at the mall, where it's every man for himself.
There's barely time to breathe before Cyber Monday, the busiest online shopping day of the year. Physical casualties are fewer but bank accounts take a bashing: last year, US sales reached $1,465billion, up 17 per cent from 2011.
And it didn't just happen in the States: Black Friday and Cyber Monday are overwhelming and over here. On Friday, British retailers slashed prices to encourage customers. Asda, inspired by parent Walmart, whipped up the frenzy using the hashtag #asdablackfriday. Shoppers cleared one branch in Benton, North Tyneside, of bargain electricals in minutes, compelled by tablets priced at £49. A shopper was arrested in Bristol after a row about televisions. Goliaths such as Apple and Amazon extended Black Friday advertising to the UK, hoping to replicate profits exacted in the States. Last year Amazon UK took more than 3.5 million orders on Cyber Monday – around 41 items per second. This year, total profits are expected to hit £10billion.
"Black Friday and Cyber Monday now have huge significance here in the UK," explains Rob Hodges, mobile expert at Mobiles.co.uk. "With major supermarkets promoting Black Friday and Cyber Monday with TV advertising, these sale days are now truly mainstream [despite being] in a country that doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving."
While consumerism is sweetened by cartoon tales of hares and bears, for some the pill is too bitter: #FairTuesday, an ethical-shopping movement, counters the consumerism.
"#FairTuesday was not created to compete with Black Friday and Cyber Monday," insists Ksenia Avdulova, one of its founders. "Instead, it's supposed to provide an alternative to holiday shopping and beyond. Rarely do we think about where our goods come from. That's what got me thinking about using the power of social media to create a movement that would educate and inspire to buy ethically-sourced gifts."
#FairTuesday was founded in October 2012 on a wave of social networking noise. This year, it crowdfunded in order to formalise the initiative, which encourages people to buy a single, conscientious gift – for example, something from a small, independent business, or with a sustainable supply chain – rather than piles of tat from big-name retailers.
Unfortunately, while tablets are priced at £49 and shoppers are targeted by aggressive advertising, our lot seems predetermined. Not a very fair fight, is it?