The Economics of Black Friday

Is Black Friday a day to give thanks for low prices, or a symbol of the gross excesses of retail capitalism?  Robert Frank discusses:

In recent years, large retail chains have been competing to be the first to open their doors on Black Friday. The race is driven by the theory that stores with the earliest start time capture the most buyers and make the most sales. For many years, stores opened at a reasonable hour. Then, some started opening at 5 a.m., prompting complaints from employees about having to go to sleep early on Thanksgiving and miss out on time with their families. But retailers ignored those complaints, because their earlier start time proved so successful in luring customers away from rival outlets.

Frank is in the “race to the bottom” crowd, and while even if the bottom is economically “efficient,” it seems to me that he would disagree with the distributional implications — low-income wage earners being exploited, crass consumerism running amok, dogs and cats living together, etc…

Champion of commercial culture, Tyler Cowen, counters:

This is portrayed as a zero-sum or negative-sum game, but I view the matter, at least in efficiency terms, more optimistically.  The alternative to waiting in line and fighting the crush is to go shopping some other day, hardly a terrible fate.  More analytically speaking, the average return in other endeavors limits how bad these rent-seeking games can get, otherwise just switch and stay home and read your blogs, as some of you perhaps are doing right now.

In fact it seems that early December has in general the cheapest prices of the year, not Black Friday.

Dare I suggest that some people like waiting in those lines with their thermos cups and stale bagels.  You could try to argue they are “forced to do so,” to get the bargains, but in a reasonably competitive world  each outlet will (roughly) try to maximize the consumer surplus from visiting the store, including the experience of waiting in line.

Whole thing here.

Contrary to popular belief, black Friday is not the day I turn in my grades. But now that the term is over, we will have some time to do some blogging!