27 December 2013

Free after rebate

I set out to write this post because it seemed as though the world had changed.

Back when I was in late high school my Sundays followed a pretty regular routine. I'd get out of bed and head down to the kitchen. My parents would be there, eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. My dad would cook me an egg and heat me up whatever else he had cooked earlier. Over breakfast, I'd jockey for space at the table and get to work, looking through the advertising circulars: Staples, Office Max, CompUSA, Office Depot, Circuit City, Best Buy. I'd draw up a plan of attack and head out right after breakfast.

Then I'd come back with the spoils: all sorts of electronics I had very little need for. Sure the scanner and cable modem that I bought were genuinely useful. I still have some of those surge protectors. The spindles of CD-Rs and DVD-RWs, well they were useful at first, but each new spindle bought before the previous one was finished brought diminishing returns. The chemical air dusters were of some use, but were probably more responsible for enabling in unhealthy relationship with inhalants in at least one UMass Amherst student. But the five-pack of ethernet cards and the poorly made mini-ATX case purchased with no computer in mind to build into it, well your guess is as good as mine.

So why'd I do it? It was mostly out of pride. I had a reputation as a master deal-finder among my friends and family. And these electronics were really good deals. I didn't work an awful lot in high school--a website here and there, technical support--and didn't need to in order to support this habit. That's because these items were free--free after rebate.

The premise of free after rebate items is pretty simple. A store sells an item at an inflated price, but the store or the manufacturer of the item issue a mail in rebate for exactly that price. Their hope is that some of the people buying the item will forget to fill out the paperwork, or make some mistake doing so. Even for those who dutifully fill out the form and mail it some exotic locale like Young America, Minnesota or Calais, Maine, the company gets to hold on to the money for several months, collecting interest. Scumbag companies may further up the ante by denying perfectly valid rebates and issue the cash to only those who have the time and energy to haggle. As an added benefit, retailers drive traffic into their stores and manufacturers drive attention to their brand. Not every store would run free after rebate sales every week, but typically at least one would in a given week. The diligent (and unfortunately sometimes only the lucky) consumer gets the benefit of only paying sales tax on the original price. Just the sort of unsustainable scheme to tide over our intrepid nation between the tech bubble and real estate one.

Of course, the High Holy Day on the free after rebate calendar was Black Friday. It was a bonanza of both quality and quantity. Rather than hiding the free after rebate items in the margin as usual, there might be a whole page of free items. And maybe instead of a 50-spindle of CD-Rs, this time around you could get a full 100 for free. Stuff like that.

My interest in finding good deals and my acquisition of a car largely coincided. So the idea of getting up early, maybe 4 AM, standing in line and snagging a bunch of free stuff took on a meaning beyond its component parts. As a mission that I planned and executed entirely on my own, it was a show of independence. My parents never really set strict limits on what I could and couldn't do, but I did a pretty good job imposing these on myself. I didn't smoke or drink in high school and I can't remember a time I spend out late socializing on a school night. In this context, Black Friday wasn't just something that I thought of as fun and exciting. Sure, there was sneaking around at odd hours of the night and the sense of plundering and ripping off the stores (despite their utter complicity with this). But more than that, it was in a sense an act of rebellion--not against some authority figure, but limits I'd imposed on myself.

This Thanksgiving I was at a friend's house watching TV and got bombarded with ads for Black Friday sales. I didn't remember many advertisements like these in the years that I stood in line. They were pushy, establishing that your loved ones were expecting good gifts and these sales were your only chance to satisfy all of them. Furthermore, the ads focussed heavily on the earlier openings times of the stores, onto Thanksgiving day itself. It made Black Friday seem less about getting up early and more about anxiously ducking out of a relaxing day of celebration. After a few viewings I was strongly repulsed by what Black Friday had become.

It seemed as though they were misappropriating something that I held kind of dear. Black Friday was an innocent time, celebrated with the most consequence-free forms of rebellion. Now it seemed the amalgamation of the basest elements of consumerism, infiltrating a holiday celebrating being appreciative of the things one already has.

But thinking about it more, I think that I was the one who misappropriated Black Friday. How could it be about anything other than consumerism? It wasn't the world that changed, it was merely the way I was looking at it.

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