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What Black Friday Crowds Are Really Shopping For

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It's hard not to look at some of the pictures of people surging into stores as they opened at the stroke of midnight for Black Friday sales and see some kind of crass, mindless mob.

The crowds in Cairo's Tahir Square clamor for democracy and free speech. Crowds in American shopping malls seem to clamor for Blu-rays, Xboxes and Wii consoles.

There were even a few reported instances of violence Friday among unruly shoppers, hell-bent for bargains.

Holiday sales figures are considered telling because stores can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during these next few weeks. Even if you decry commercialism in a season that celebrates spirit, faith and family, it's hard to root against sales that could create more jobs when the unemployment rate is above 9 percent.

But I think something else may be at work to explain the swarms at midnight sales and the intensity of bargain hunting.

In hard economic times, people will go without buying themselves new shoes or a winter coat. They'll do without lunch and snacks, and stretch hamburger with rice and beans. They'll sit at home rather than line up to see the latest Adam Sandler movie. They'll patch up old socks and sweaters. They'll try to make their old car last for another year of errands, school drop-offs and job interviews — again.

But they won't skimp on holiday gifts for their family. People who are unemployed will spend their last savings, and people who are earning less with fewer benefits will take a second job so that their children can unwrap the toy that they've seen on TV — the Let's Rock Elmo or Power Wheels Dune Racer they know other children will get.

I don't think people can resist the clamor of commercials and the lure of blowout sales. But I think they'll spend money during the holidays that they might more wisely try to save for food or rent to try to reassure their spouses and children — and perhaps themselves — that they're still resourceful and strong, that they can still provide for their families.

A lot of people might have lost their jobs and even their homes; they might have suffered a year or more of rejection, belt-tightening and wearing out their heels. A lot of people have had to hold off retirement and live with less health care coverage and more anxiety.

But they don't want their families to worry. And they hope that they won't if they can still figure out a way to give something this season to those they love that will make them smile and say, "How did you manage that?"

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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