Black Friday: The Perfect NAFTA Holiday?

If the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were to have its own holiday, it might very well be Black Friday Week.

Mimicking their counterparts in the U.S., Mexican merchants this month rolled out a version of the U.S. shopping frenzy for the third year in a row, while more and more Canadians planned to turn out for their country’s Black Friday edition, according to the Bank of Montreal.  Almost 20 years into NAFTA, many of the same retailers, food processors, bankers, advertisers, and media moguls have a preeminent presence in all three member nations of the trade and investment pact.

U.S.-Mexico border residents had the opportunity to participate in two Black Fridays:  the original one in El Norte and Mexico’s El Buen Fin sales event held November 15-18.  Until now, however, the flow of customers is mostly one way north. Not surprisingly, lines of vehicles and pedestrians stretching up to three or four hours were reported waiting to cross November 28 and 29 in places such as Tijuana/San Diego and Ciudad Juarez/El Paso.

Bus loads of Mexican passengers were even ferried across the border to turn their pesos into dollars for Black Friday Christmas shopping, which again sneaked into Thanksgiving Day and beyond this year. Especially in the realm of consumer electronics, cheaper U.S. prices attract many  Mexican shoppers to this side of the border.

In Texas’ Sun City,  some Mexican nationals even arrived early in the week to camp out at a Best Buy store. A man identified only as Victor said he and five friends from Chihuahua and Durango set up their El Paso encampment November 24 in anticipation of the big day.

“We come for televisions, movies and games,” Victor said. “We spent $6,000 last year.”  Later, a reporter noted the predominance of Chihuahua license plates outside the store, but few from Texas or neighboring New Mexico.

“I mainly come to El Paso for the discounts that aren’t given over there,” said customer Marilyn Raquel, who works as an economist. “Sadly, we have to invest in another country.”

Mexican media coverage of U.S. Black Friday pursued four basic angles: the business story, the crime story, the social story, and the labor-management story.

A dispatch from the Notimex news service cited the National Retail Federation in calculating that fewer people would turn out for U.S. Black Friday this season, with an estimated 140 million shoppers braving the crowds in comparison with the 147 million last year.

“It’s evident that U.S. residents have the Christmas spirit despite their caution in purchases,” Pam Goodfellow, NRF spokeswoman, was quoted by Notimex.

The Mexican daily El Universal reported on outbreaks of violence and chaos in the San Diego area,  an injury from a scuffle at a Florida store line and a police shooting of a suspected robber in Chicago, among other incidents.

“Blows, stabbed victims, shots and lost babies are some of the events that happened on the biggest sales day for U.S. business,” led off an article posted on El Universal’s home page.

A reporter for a Tijuana newspaper contrasted the scenes of hundreds of people jammed outside San Diego area stores with a crowd of 1,000 people lined up for a Thanksgiving dinner served up by Salvation Army volunteers.
Lending her hand to feed the hungry, Alma Mitchell urged people to return to the giving essence of the holiday.

Across the U.S., providers were hard-pressed to supply the legions of hungry people this Thanksgiving.  Only a few weeks ago, on November 1, food stamps were cut by an average $36 per month for a family of four, affecting an estimated 47 million people just in time for the 2013 holiday season.

On its website, La Jornada gave a prominent spot to the Black Friday labor protests organized by the Wal-Mart worker advocacy organization, Our Walmart, and its allies.  Bigger in scope and turnout than last year’s actions in support of higher pay and improved working conditions, this year’s protests reportedly drew tens of thousands of people from coast-to-coast. More than 100 people were arrested in different cities across the nation.  Wal-Mart downplayed the demonstrations, claiming fewer than 20 workers participated.

“That’s laughable and it is disrespectful to workers and supporters who are raising real concerns about low wages ..,” a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers e-mailed a writer for Salon.com.

In recent years Black Friday has become not only a commercial ritual in all the NAFTA nations, but a multi-dimensional cultural phenomenon as well.

Black Friday encompasses mass consumerism, linguistic evolution, transnational commerce, shopping tourism, advertising power, and social hysteria.

In the age of social media, the day is sensationally portrayed for posterity on YouTube, where scenes of fights, shouting customers and police take-downs of belligerent shoppers abound.

In the U.S., Black Friday has also emerged as a new day of worker rights in the last two years.

The day comes amid a week-long blow-out of drinking, feasting, binging, spending and venting. It begins with the tavern-packed Blackout Wednesday, as the evening is called in the spirits serving industry,  followed  by Turkey Day, or “Gray Thursday” in commercial lingo, and extending into the big shopping adventure.

But the action doesn’t stop on Friday.  “With Black Friday savings all weekend!” barks a radio ad.  For those who miss out on the mall or super-store fun, there is now “Cyber Monday,” a day in which online sales could exceed $2 billion this year.

In monetary terms, this year’s Black Friday in the U.S. and El Buen Fin in Mexico had mixed results, according to the preliminary reports.

Mexico’s National Confederation of Chambers of Commerce, Services and Tourism reported sales up from last year, topping $15 billion for the three days of El Buen Fin, which means “The Good Weekend”  in English.

On the other hand, the UBS Mexico business advisory firm monitored department stores and concluded that it did not document “the great multitudes” of the first two years of the event.

A U.S. analyst interviewed by Marketwatch.com  blamed less-than-stellar sales in this country on lagging pay. Wall Street was not overly impressed by Black Friday 2013.  Although the Nasdaq was up 15 points in  Friday’s partial trading, the Dow and S&P 500 were down 11 and 1 points, respectively.

To paraphrase a former U.S. president: “It’s the wages, stupid!”

Sources: Marketwatch.com, November 29, 2013. El Universal, November 29, 2013. El Sol de  Tijuana, November 29, 2013.  Article by Rocio Galvan. Arrobajuarez, November 29, 2013. Lapolaka.com, November 29, 2013.  Salon.com, November 29, 2013. Article by Josh Eidelson.

El Diario de Juarez, November 28 and 29, 2013. Articles by Berenice Gaytan and Notimex. El Diario de El Paso, November 28, 2013. Article by Diego Murcia. NBC News, November 28, 2013. Article by Elisha Fieldstadt. La Jornada, November 19 and 29, 2013. Articles by Julio Reyna Quiroz and editorial staff.


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