The Atlantic Daily: To Shop or Not to Shop?

Happy Black Friday Eve. A friendly reminder that you have even more reasons than usual to ignore those marketing emails this year.

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The Atlantic

Ah, Black Friday—the Super Bowl of marketing, when a million tiny voices in your inbox shout in staccato: Hurry! Wow! Look! Now!

Given the current supply-chain snarls, should you rethink jumping on that irresistible deal? I caught up with our in-house consumerism maven, Amanda Mull, who writes our “Material World” column, to discuss the annual avalanche of sales and her recent argument that the wealthiest Americans should quit buying so much stuff they don’t need.

The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Should people be participating in Black Friday this year, considering the state of supply chains?

Amanda Mull: It depends on the individual. For some people, this is the best opportunity to get good prices on stuff that they already need or want. If that stuff is priced lower right now than it would be normally, then far be it from me—or anyone else—to tell them not to do it.

If you are a person who pretty much has what they need—and are going into the Black Friday offer emails with this desire to just be dazzled or to fill an hour idly shopping—then maybe you can restrain that urge a little bit right now.

Caroline: You recently encouraged Americans to ease up on their shopping altogether. Can you explain why?

Amanda: My argument is essentially that if you are shopping as entertainment right now, it’s a great time to step back from that and decide what you can live without. It’s important to note that my argument is pinpointed at the most affluent Americans. These people may not have spent their salaries during the pandemic as they would have beforehand—they’re not taking vacations or going out to restaurant meals. So you have a population that has a lot of money that it’s sitting on, and they are just spending in whatever direction is available.

You see a lot of resources being tied up in entertaining this very wealthy tier of consumers. And then you see a lot of people who don’t have as much money, who are having a hard time getting the things they need at stores or who are in jobs [such as truck driving or package delivery] that are put under enormous amounts of stress because of shortages.

Caroline: This year, some retailers extended Black Friday sales or launched them earlier. What do you make of that strategy?

Amanda: Black Friday long ago ceased being just a day; it’s now more of a vibe.

Retailers are always hoping that you will shop early and shop often so that it is less stress on their systems and they can capture as many of your holiday dollars as possible. Right now, they have realized that, not only is that more important on a logistical [level], but that just explaining it that way is something that the shoppers will probably be receptive to, because they understand that there is a lot of sold-out stuff. That ambient awareness on the part of consumers gives retailers an opportunity to level with them about stuff businesses are always worried about.

Caroline: What are you planning to do this Black Friday? Will you be watching any sales?

Amanda: I’m lucky in that I have friends who are around for Thanksgiving. I’m a big football fan, and my college football team plays two days after Thanksgiving. So I have some activities to do this weekend.

But Black Friday comes to my phone. I’m sure that I will open my email and look at something and go, “Oh, I didn’t expect that. Maybe I should take a look at that.”

This stuff is all tailor-made to manipulate us as effectively as possible. A lot of money goes into making sure that I will open at least a couple of those emails. No matter what kind of self-control or understanding of the forces at play you have, that is a really hard thing to resist, because we’re constantly being solicited to shop.

Read. Looking to settle in with a gripping story this weekend? Read Jill Lepore on the elephant at the center of the most important animal-rights case of the 21st century. Or Jacob Stern on the boxer returning to the ring after accidentally killing an opponent.

Watch. If you’re looking for a comfort movie to stream or rent over the holiday, here are 25 options.

House of Gucci, in theaters, explores the dark side of wealth. Tick, Tick … Boom, in select theaters and streaming on Netflix, is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s best work since Hamilton. And Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, a basic-cable mainstay that also streams on Hulu, speaks to a homesick America.

Listen. On this week’s episode of How to Build a Happy Life, Arthur C. Brooks helps readers figure out what actually brings them joy.

Get ready for Native American Heritage Day. Ahead of tomorrow’s holiday, read our cover story on why the national parks should be returned to the tribes.