United Shoppers of America

IT’S ALMOST A CIVIC RITUAL, this mass migration to the shopping center or the outlet mall or the big-box store, and the earlier you go, the better a citizen you are. Doors opened hours ago, if they ever closed.

Ah, Black Friday. The term has a funereal connotation, as if we all flock to the stores to mourn our society’s excess. But it is hardly that. The “black” here refers to the phrase “in the black,” as in profitable. The theory, which is now so widespread it hardly matters anymore if it’s true, is that the holiday shopping season that begins today will put many retailers into the black for the year. Consider it the modern-day retail equivalent of an old harvesting festival.

It’s easy to deride consumerism. Yet the crowds at the stores today and in the weeks to come will not just be grasping for the latest mass-marketed gadgets and gewgaws. They will be taking a leap of faith and making a vote of confidence in the resilience of the U.S. economy. The fabled American consumer, buoyed by low interest rates and a booming housing market that has turned many homes into ATMs via refinancings, has carried the economy for much of the decade, from the trauma of the dot-com bust through 9/11, corporate scandals, war and the epic hurricanes (and those equally epic fuel costs) of this fall. In the third quarter of this year, the nation’s economy grew at a brisk 3.8% annual rate. Remarkably, that was the 10th straight quarter of growth of 3% or greater.

Consumers will go on a nearly half-trillion-dollar shopping spree between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Economists differ on whether this will be a solid or a strong season, and nervous retailers are slashing prices earlier than ever and uttering those two magic words -- free shipping -- to help close the deal. Plummeting gas prices could also add to shoppers’ holiday cheer.


There are clouds on the horizon, of course. (There always is in the consumer economy.) Fuel costs could shoot up again, and the stalling housing market in much of the nation could make Americans feel less prosperous. And when it’s all over early next year, those December credit card statements could hit mailboxes just in time for a rise in interest rates. But economics isn’t always about black or red. It’s usually about the grays. With other engines of growth coming on strong, such as business investment and government spending, the economy may be able to continue thriving with a less exuberant consumer.

We’re all going to need a break come January anyway. Until then, take a deep breath, pace yourself, and be patient with the clerks and considerate of your fellow shoppers -- even the ones elbowing you aside en route to the checkout counter.