Black Friday sales are a reminder that the economy is designed to keep us buying stuff. Shanti Mathias takes a step back to ask how that happened – and if it’ll always be the case. 

Emily Miller-Sharma has run out of clothing hangers, and she’s thrilled about it. The Ruby founder and designer is preparing for Black Friday, and her Newmarket store is filled with more clothes than ever before. Miller-Sharma is talking to me a few days prior, and says that the hanger situation is so dire that she’s been asking fashion industry friends for their spares just so all the clothes can be on display. 

But Ruby is not selling new garments at its Black Friday event. Instead, it’s holding “Take Back Friday” – an opportunity for customers to return Ruby clothing they no longer wear so it can be sold, at reduced prices, to someone else. Donors will receive a gift voucher in return. “No clothing should go to waste; resource has gone into it,” she says. “The  raw material of petroleum for polyester, or cotton, the human element of the hands that have stitched it, the freight to get it from A to B.”  She likes the idea of customers coming to Ruby to give old clothes new lives. “There’s a demand for secondhand – it’s a calculated risk, and I hope it works out.” 

a room full of colourful clothes
The hanger situation at Ruby HQ (Photo: Supplied)

Miller-Sharma clearly cares deeply about finding a way to operate that doesn’t depend on selling new clothes; Ruby’s sister brand Liam now sells patterns so people can make their own clothes, they sell cushions stuffed with offcuts and the business is aiming to have at least a third of its revenue generated by selling something other than new clothing; the “Take Back Friday” event is another step towards this. “It sounds like I’m being virtuous, but my view is that when things [like Black Friday] are going on globally, we don’t have to participate – we can fold it into what will have long term benefits for us as a society and a community.”

To Michael Lee, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Auckland, Ruby’s Black Friday alternative might be praiseworthy, but it’s also a classic branding move. “All good marketing is differentiation,” he says. “Offering the same product for cheaper is differentiation, but you can also differentiate through brand building – like highlighting recycling.” Its recycling initiative might not be a traditional sale, but Ruby is still selling something: the idea of itself as a different kind of brand. 

It’s clearly unfair to reduce Miller-Sharma’s genuine interest in changing the business model of her fashion company – and her customers’ evident enthusiasm for the same – to the sterile language of a “brand story”. But the fact that even relatively small businesses like Ruby are still compelled to participate in Black Friday is telling. 

Attached in the US to the celebration of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November, Black Friday has been exported internationally as a “shopping holiday”, an irresistible precursor to Boxing Day sales, then Valentines Day sales, then Easter sales. Lee says it’s “a bit sad” that Black Friday so easily established itself here when  Thanksgiving itself – a festival of gratitude, especially for intangible things like family and friends – never has. Businesses have found a way to “tap into that cultural significance to build sales into a cultural ritual,” Lee says. The spectacle of sales, vivid in advertising and store windows, demonstrates how much shopping really is its own ritual, even if its performance is all too often at the expense of the planet. 

A pattern from the Ruby sewing club (image: screenshot).

‘People are probably more inclined to buy something they don’t need or necessarily want when it’s a fantastic deal,” says Angela Stone, a personal shopper from Christchurch.  “Black Friday sales” have traditionally brought to mind a melee of limbs and boxes as rabid consumers grab the nearest deal. Her job is to be the opposite of that: to be calm and efficient, selecting items that fit her clients’ needs, so that shopping is less stressful for them, especially if they don’t know what they want. 

Online shopping compels people to buy images of glittering objects and perfectly hung clothes without having to reckon with the material reality of how a new thing will fit into their life. Stone thinks that browsing sites emblazoned with red banner sales means you’re much more likely to buy something you don’t really need, or perhaps even want. “Online shopping really is designed to encourage people to buy, buy, buy – and when you’re getting marketing emails every other day, it’s hard to resist.”

Many websites make use of “dark patterns”, a term for manipulative digital design that is as good at making people compulsively scroll social media as it is at getting people to buy things. Tactics like countdown timers and alerts that others have a product in their carts or that only so many items are left are designed to create an illusion of scarcity, even though there is no transparency that this is really the case.

Online shopping is increasingly seamless, making it as efficient as possible to click on an item, insert your payment and shipping details, and check out. Without any points of friction, you can have paid for something in a minute, before you have time to think about whether you need it. For people who find they’re increasingly lured by online sales, Stone recommends only buying things you have already tried on in person and setting a budget before you start scrolling through colourful things and imagining them in your life. 

Of course, many of the same tactics work in person. Think of the discombobulating effect of walking into a Chemist Warehouse and emerging, stupefied, with a bag full of things you’d never heard of before. Streets across New Zealand have been plastered with Black Friday advertising for the last few weeks; even supermarkets, supposedly selling essentials, are in on it too. There’s also a concern about legitimacy; some sales are straight-up scams. 

In researching this article, most of the coverage of Black Friday in New Zealand were lists of the juiciest sales, perfectly optimised for search engines, encouraging readers to get in on good deals. It’s a good way to encourage clicks, but only adds to sales’ ubiquity, the sense that everyone who isn’t shopping probably should be. It’s what Lee calls “the psychic space”, waving at his head as if it’s already filled with a billboard. Advertising costs money; you thinking about a company or a thing you want in your own time doesn’t cost retailers a cent.

Do sales do anything more than simply “give us more excuses to buy things we don’t need,” as Lee says? Discounts are one of the best ways to move products, so they’ll always be part of our retail landscape – and Stone says that they do serve a purpose in getting rid of items that the store might otherwise throw away. (Although this begs the question: is a superfluous item any more valuable in your house than it is in the dump?) 

 sign saying 40% of black firday
Shoppers in Dublin ahead of Black Friday 2017 (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Lee is the director of the International Centre for Anti-consumption Research at Auckland University, where he studies what makes people not buy things, rather than the opposite. For some, sales can be a turn off. “There is a smaller group of people who might think if it’s that cheap, it’s made in a cheap way, with cheap labour, and wonder: ‘should I be buying this?’” he says. 

Simply from a commercial point of view, there’s a danger to sales, too, for the company: if a brand, like, say, Briscoes, is always discounted, people won’t want to buy items that are fully priced. On our video call, Lee draws a line in the air, representing a new low of prices for an era of constant sales. “We live in a system of mass consumption designed to perpetuate growth,” he says. In that framework, it makes sense that most retailers use sales to promote their products, although it’s often at the expense of the planet. Still, Lee sees glimpses of change in the movement to promote more ethical business practices, even if, like with Ruby’s “anti-sale”, that can be its own kind of marketing. 

“People are going to act in their own best interest at all times,” Miller-Sharma admits. “It’s so hard to know what to do.” Even as Ruby tries to do things differently, the offer of a store voucher in return for a customer’s cast-offs is helping to fuel more consumption of new stock. She is still running a business, after all. What Ruby is already doing with secondhand clothes is “a bit of a faff”, far more effort than making and selling clothes for as long as the planet lasts, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. As the clock ticks over to Friday, just one day of what has become a week, a month, a life of wanting and buying and wanting again, it’s still a reminder that sales don’t – can’t – last.