Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Season of Shopping

Well, here we are, the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the shopping season is upon us. Of course, some stores have had Christmas decorations up since before Halloween. Remember when the shopping and calendar years had distinct seasons? I do understand the desire of retail stores to push the envelope since for oh so many retail stores, the Christmas sales are the difference between an annual profit and loss for the year. While the term "Black Friday" did not originally have this definition, the idea that the Friday after Thanksgiving is the day where a business passes from the red (loss) into the black (profit) has gained some credence.

I started working in a men's clothing store (M. Goldberg, Inc) as a sales clerk/stock clerk/janitor when I was thirteen years old until I was twenty. During most of the year, we opened at 8AM Monday through Saturday, closing at 5:30 M - F and at 6PM on Saturday. After Thanksgiving though, we were open until 8PM, all six nights a week until Christmas Eve when we would close at 5PM. Even as I attended military high school and college, any weekends or holidays I was home and most summers, I would be put to work. We didn't have or need special sales to get people to come into the store. The big sale was always post-Christmas with the "January Clearance." We also had a "July Clearance," conveniently enough after Father's Day. Most years, the day or two before Father's Day in June, we would have daily revenues comparable to the days in the week before Christmas.

During the years I worked at the store, my small hometown of about 5500 people (with surrounding county total population of about 15,000 or 16,000 people) could and did support two fine men's stores (Gordon and Smith was the other men's store), four or so fine ladies shoppes, two or three jewelry stores, two locally owned hardware stores, two "five and ten cent stores," a Dollar store, a sporting goods store, a couple of department stores, a couple of furniture stores, and a Sears & Roebuck catalog store. In multiple cases these competitors would be side-by-side, directly across the street from each other or on opposite street corners. Although Cincinnati was 60 miles north and Lexington was 35 miles south, few people would drive to those cities as it was seemingly a l-o-n-g trek to do so. They pretty much shopped locally or not at all. The reality is, most people could park their car somewhere downtown and do a days shopping and not walk as much as they do today when they go to a mall.

I've always felt that those days could have served as a Master's class in micro-economics. Each of these businesses had been in town for decades. Each of them carried good, name brands. The men's store I worked for started from a bit of a disadvantage as we did not carry boy's clothing at all (which kind of made it difficult for me when I started working there as I was not quite large enough to fit small men's sizes so my options in purchasing good clothing were initially limited.) In those days, there was parking on both sides of most streets plus the traffic flowed in both directions and the downtown area was vibrant with cars and people on the street. I do not know how the other businesses operated but we had a section in one back corner of the store where all the lay-aways were kept for the people who wanted to hold something and pay for it as they went along. We also had two thick "credit books" (A - L, M - Z) with each book being 3 to 4 inches thick. I was "trustworthy" so would charge most of my clothing and that's where most of my earnings went - to pay the clothing bill.

The day after Christmas (and the Monday after Father's Day) usually had quite a bit of traffic in and out of the store but maybe not so much in the way of sales as those were big exchange days. Wrong size, wrong color, damaged, etc. When we were doing exchanges, we always tried to find the identical item in the correct size as that made it so much easier all the way around. Then we would close the store for a couple of days to get ready for the big sale, with all the mark downs on that season's men's fashion (even though most of the styles did not change in men's clothing that much).

As a kid, we always were looking forward to receiving that year's Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog (also known as the "wish book.") I remember looking through that catalog every year. First time through it was always, "I want that and I want that and I want that..." on and on with all the toys I wanted. Sometimes it might even be a toy that had been "as seen on TV!" A couple of years, I even received some of the things I had wanted from the catalog!

Now of course, it seems that every child's television show has the marketing tie-ins for just about any product you can imagine. So Toys R Us opens on Thanksgiving with special deals already gone hours after the stores open.

I'm thinking progress has been a bit like a regression in some ways.

And because I can:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

A couple of years ago, I wrote this post covering just a few of the things for which we should not be thankful for on Thanksgiving. Here we are two years on, and there are still a large number of things not to be thankful for and the list does seem to get a bit larger all the time. Retail stores are opening earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving Day, no longer content with opening in the early AM hours of the day after Thanksgiving. My guess is we might see a move to ban Thanksgiving retail store openings in the next few years, following Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Of course, we all know that such a move will be opposed by the Chamber of Commerce and other representatives of the retail industry.

Time Magazine has this story about Thanksgiving shopping:

This year, stores including Best Buy, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, Macy’s and Toys “R” Us, will open their doors just after the sun goes down on Thanksgiving, betting that consumers will be done with dinner and ready to cross some gifts off their shopping lists. Meanwhile, Nordstrom, Costco, BJ’s Wholesale Club and others have put out statements saying they will remain closed, as they always have, out of respect for the holiday and for employees who want to spend it with their families.

But is either camp really coming out ahead? It’s a wash, Wharton experts say, while predicting that as an increasing number of retailers decides to add Thanksgiving hours, it is only a matter of time before almost everyone joins in. “[Opening earlier and earlier] is not going to lead to more retail sales, and there is not much of a competitive advantage,” notes Wharton marketing professor Stephen Hoch. “At the same time, there is no benefit to not opening on Thursday; the higher moral ground really doesn’t matter.”
So even though opening on Thanksgiving Day seems to be a zero sum game, it will continue and grow because everyone is doing it.

Now one of the realities of life is, there have always been groups of people who have to work on any holiday. There are restaurants that advertise their Thanksgiving Day specials. Servers, cooks, clean up staff all working to serve those who for whatever reason are not cooking for themselves or their families. I know I have eaten out on Thanksgiving and Christmas a couple of times over the years so I can't claim any moral superiority in this. Of course, emergency service personnel, hospitals, police, and firefighters all work. Many newspapers around the country will not have a Thanksgiving edition on Thursday morning but the reporters and editors will be on the job Thursday evening so that the paper will be available first thing Friday morning as usual.

Folks who have read my posts over the year know that my life has not always traveled an easy path yet I do have quite a bit to be thankful for, even with all the bad. Just this past July, I wrote that I was Homeless and within a day, I had an offer of a room for Dan'l and myself. I also received an offer from a couple of friends and former co-workers if I could reach them in upstate NY. I have family and friends who are almost always willing to offer various levels of support to help bridge the bad times.

I see reports in the news about how people see a story on the news or hear about someone whose live has been devastated through illness, loss of jobs, accidents, fire or whatever then people take a collection or crowd fund some support and wind up raising thousands of dollars to help. Seeing those stories and knowing how I have been helped will always move me. Even as we read about how a WalMart store in Cleveland has set up an internal food drive for employees to help other employees, it brings mixed emotions. I am sure the WalMart employees will contribute to help their fellow workers so in that sense, the food drive will succeed. Yet I have to question how things reach this case where working people do not make enough to support themselves in the holidays. I wind up with a sense of mixed emotions similar to how I feel watching a TV show like Undercover Boss - bravo I guess for doing something but where's the responsibility that leads to this having to be done in the first place?

As we sit down to our various Thanksgiving Day feasts across the country, please do give thanks for the plenty that we experience. But please also keep in mind the folks around the country and around the globe, struggling for food, for shelter, for clean water and clean air. We only have the one earth available to us and there is no Plan B available.

And because I can:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fifty Years On

In some ways it does not seem like it has been fifty years. In other ways, it seems like it has been even longer.

This Friday, November 22, 2013, it will be fifty years since the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. That day fifty years ago was also a Friday. I remember it was a sunny afternoon and I was sitting in Mrs. Prahl's 6th grade class. If I remember correctly, we were studying math at the time. Sometime about 2:15 - 2:30 that afternoon, Mr. Gilbert, the principal came to the door, leaned against it and asked for attention. I seem to recall his eyes being red as he announced that President Kennedy had been shot and killed within the hour. I don't remember much more from the rest of the school day but I don't think we got much more studying done.

My next memories of that day are from about 6PM. It was a Friday evening and we were going to a basketball game at Pendleton Co, the next county north of my hometown, where my mother was the librarian and ticket taker for ball games. She had stayed at the school that afternoon but my sister, who was attending Pendleton Co that year had come home then was going to ride back with my father and me. We watched the network news that evening showing the arrival of the coffin back in Washington, DC and I saw my father crying for one of the few times in my life. I don't remember much else from that day.

My family was full of staunch supporters of President Kennedy. During the 1960 elections, I wore a plastic "straw boater" Kennedy for President hat. We had to line it with kleenex and toilet paper taped to the inside in order for me to actually wear it. My mother stood on a fence line at Bluegrass Field in Lexington, KY for hours one afternoon just for a chance to shake Kennedy's hand as he stopped for a campaign visit then didn't wash her hand for a week, greeting people with "would you like to shake the hand that shook the hand of JFK?"

We all went to church that Sunday so we missed the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, although I know we watched the scene of that shooting replay multiple times over the next few days on the TV news.

I know we did not have school on that Monday as I remember we watched the funeral, seeing "John-John" saluting, seeing the caisson and the riderless horse with the boots backwards in the stirrups:

Today "the boots facing backward symbolize [that] the fallen won't ride again and [the rider is] looking back on his family one last time," he said.
The next few years after President Kennedy's death saw a roller coaster of action. The passing of the Civil Rights Act, one of President Kennedy's signature legislative pieces even as it did not pass until the next year. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The landing of men on the moon in 1969, fulfilling President Kennedy's vow to place a man on the moon within 10 years of his inauguration. Riots in the ghettos of cities throughout the US. The build up of troops in Vietnam, the scenes of death brought into our homes each night, and the upheavals on college campuses nationwide in protest.

My experiences and memories of this weekend are not appreciably different than those of millions of others. It is just one of the collective touch points of life in the US in the 1960s.

I'm not going to address the Warren Commission Report or any of the conspiracies from over the years and request you do not do so either. Let's just reflect on a life ended too soon and the subsequent end of a part of the national innocence.

And because I can:

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veteran's Day 2013

Today is November 11, 2013. Veteran's Day. Ninety-four years ago was the first observance known initially as "Armistice Day":

World War I – known at the time as “The Great War” - officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"
Ah yes. The "war to end all wars." Well, so much for that.

This is from the Census Department with a number of facts about Veterans. While it estimates that there are 21.7M Veterans at this time, this little note a the end kind of puts the lie to that figure:
Note: These estimates include the civilian noninstitutionalized population of veterans 18 years and over living in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. They exclude active-duty military personnel and the population living in correctional facilities and nursing homes.
This from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans has some statistics about the incarcerated veterans.

This links to the overall report on Homeless Veterans of which the Incarcerated Veterans is part.

Many folks are unaware of the problems facing women veterans, including homelessness. I became aware of Final Salute, Inc through a cousin who has provided support. Final Salute is trying to help these women veterans and combat the homelessness. The founder of Final Salute, Jas Boothe, was named a "CNN Hero" earlier.

Huffington Post had this from February 2013 on the daily suicide rate for Veterans. Twenty-two per day is not a figure we should be proud of.

The recent cutback in Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits affected an estimated 900,000 veterans. This works out to roughly 4% of all veterans. According to Wiki, the overall SNAP benefits are received by over 15% of the overall US population.

As I wrote last year:
So what is my point with all of this? It is to remind folks that the veteran is the man or woman you grew up with, attended high school or college with. We're the person who grew up down the street from you or that you saw everyday at the drug store or fast food joint. Most of us had a variety of reasons to sign our names and take the oath of enlistment. We weren't and aren't making a big production of our service. We mostly served and came home, no matter the time.

And because I can: