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My god, what's happened to us?
Just a year ago, police had to subdue a crowd with pepper spray at a Target in Tysons Corner, Va., that had been waiting in line to buy a PlayStation 3. Meanwhile, Wii mania gripped shoppers elsewhere. Early shoppers tried to sell their places in line and then hawk their consoles for excessive prices on eBay.
And for the past three years, Wal-Mart has offered super cheap laptops as bait to shoppers, who responded by trampling each other in the predawn light of store parking lots. In 2005, police had to be called in to restore order to the electronics department at Wal-Mart in Mountain View, Calif., claims one witness.
"A few years ago during a Thanksgiving holiday in Dallas, my wife and her sisters got up before dawn Friday morning to go doorbusting, hitting the sales at Target and other retailers on the biggest shopping day of the year," wrote a blogger of his experience a few years ago. "I thought this sounded nurse-a-shotgun dreadful, but when I saw some of the prices at computer stores, I became one of these sad, bargain-crazed freaks."
Don't be ashamed. We're Americans. The British came to prominence by being great sailors. Germans have excelled in music and math. The Japanese cornered the market on precision engineering.
We know how to find a bargain. Our national motto should be "Ten percent off." And scoff as you might, the obsession with a good deal has had tremendous historical impact. Advertising led to the growth of a free and robust press. The Internet is a creature dominated and subsidized by shopping. Globalism and the slow alleviation of poverty in Asia? Due to the quest for a cheaper Etch-a-Sketch. We started a movement to let seniors live lives of quiet, fulfilling dignity, and led to discount coupons for the Olive Garden.
In that context, it is a cause for concern that no one got injured looking for hot deals on a bed liner for a Ford F-100?
Personally, I blame the electronics industry. For the last few years, they have enticed buyers into stores with large flat-screen TVs and consumers have responded in turn by snapping them up.
The big items this year so far have been the Kindle, an electronic book from Amazon.com, and the new version of the Sony Reader. Both are beautiful products. Unfortunately, both are books. Don't you people read the news? Reading books for pleasure is way down, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Only 31 percent of adults with bachelor's degrees are actually proficient in reading.
And you can bet that the ones who do read are a bit more circumspect than the average bear. They might "accidentally" nudge someone in the Brookstone outlet or mutter something clever behind your back. But, no, they won't likely try to shiv you because you got the last Sony Reader and they really, really want to give their wife a device that will let her read David Sedaris essays in the PDF format.
And I blame Americans, too. The obesity epidemic is clearly out of hand. Are we so fat and lazy that we can't raise a fist in anger against a complete stranger who happened to grab the last Barbie Jam with Me Pretend Karaoke Guitar?
Weirdly, the only company (and consumer niche) that's kept up its part of the bargain is Apple. Earlier this year, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company whipped up an orgy of conspicuous consumption with the iPhone. People paid $599 to get one. Then many howled when the price dropped to $399, thereby marking perhaps the first protest in history against a price cut.
I've always viewed Apple somewhat skeptically, but this fairly calm holiday shopping season has given me a new appreciation of its talents. The company has convinced individuals that the way to become independent and original is to stand in line and buy something. Other companies need to understand that, too.
The lack of violent outbursts might be a reflection of current economic fears. But, to me, it seems like the holiday spirit is slipping through our fingers.
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas. He has worked as an attorney, travel writer and sidewalk hawker for a time share resort, among other occupations.
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