POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 3, 2010
The retail feeding frenzy that is Black Friday can go wrong on so many levels -- ranging from materialism with scant regard for sanctity of the season to herd-mentality trampling that can turn downright dangerous. But in a capitalist society that depends on the robust flow of supply and demand, the holiday shopping brings into vivid focus the dynamics that make our free world go round. And this year, after recent years of recession gloom, Black Friday's optimism was both a boon and a relief.
Lured by deals from anxious merchants, consumers gifted retailers with their best gains in four years. The post-Thanksgiving retail sales were an overdue bonanza for shops and shoppers alike, with traffic at a record high of 212 million shoppers and $45 billion spent over the past four-day weekend.
That's just the most visible manifestation of some highly positive signs. New indexes this week show that U.S. consumers' confidence rose last month to the highest level in five months, and that spending gains during the holiday-shopping season will likely continue into next year.
"A welcome sign as we enter the holiday season," says Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center -- and it's a sentiment that we echo.
The nature of the purchases is also telling: Whereas gift-buying in the last two years tended to be practical items like socks and small appliances, this season's included pricier and beyond-the-basics goods.
"Overall, discretionary spending looks to be making a comeback," said Ken Perkins, president of the research firm RetailMetrics.
The merry signs of rebound also spiked online sales, as Americans jumped on deals offered on Cyber Monday, spending $1 billion and making it the busiest online shopping day ever. Those revenues rose 16 percent from a year ago to $1.03 billion on the Monday after Thanksgiving.
To be sure, many in Hawaii and the nation continue to struggle financially, and the congressional deadlock over aid extension for the long-term jobless is a sober reminder. But since peaking at 7 percent in summer 2009, Hawaii's unemployment rate has been trending downward and has held steady at 6.4 percent for the last several months, well below the national rate of 9.6 percent. Nationally, fewer Americans filed for jobless insurance claims over the past month, indicating an improving jobs market.
The fervent hope is that businesses will survive, even grow, in the months ahead. If this lame-duck session of Congress extends the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle- and lower-classes -- as it should and is widely expected to do -- the U.S. economy's upward trend can continue. Failure to do so by year's end would be dire.
The blessing of living in this American society is the freedom to participate: Line up for Black Friday's come-hither specials, or opt out -- it is up to you. The flip side, of course, is a curse to avoid: falling into debt by overspending. No matter how good the deal, don't buy what can't be afforded. Hawaii consumers carry the second highest credit card debt in the nation, an average of $5,716 last quarter. And though they do fairly well in paying it off, living beyond one's means only invites risk of ruin.
In a year that continued to buffet thousands of Hawaii residents with layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, the holiday hoopla provides a welcome distraction -- and this particular season, it is laced with tangible signs that better times are beginning. They remind us of the joys of giving and receiving: Of gifts, yes, purchased at retail or bargain prices -- but also in blessings, big and small.