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Editor's Notes: Robot hamsters and me

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Robin Doussard
Tuesday, December 01, 2009

I didn’t throw myself against glass doors on Black Friday to be one of the first shoppers to snag one of those freaky robot hamsters (Zhu Zhu Pets “don’t poop, die or stink, but they are still a riot of motion and sound!”). And I didn’t spend all my time surfing the web on Cyber Monday. I actually was working at my computer all day (really, boss, I was).

I’ve basically stopped shopping, and I’m beginning to feel like a Communist since I’m being told that my willingness to spend, even if it’s a stupid thing to do, is the only thing that will save the country. And now I have those poor rich bastards in Dubai to worry about.

My fellow business and news writers have breathlessly charted the biggest shopping days of the year this past week as if they were witnessing the end of the world. Will the American consumer come back in force? Will they spend more or less? What will happen if they don’t grossly spend beyond their means and the world economy sinks even lower!? I thought at one point a TV interviewer was going to pass out from the anxiety of it all. Santa, please bring me one TV news show that knows the difference between covering frenzied Wal-Mart shoppers and covering Hurricane Katrina.

Still, despite the fact that there are six times as many Americans seeking work as there are job openings, and the average duration of unemployment is at the highest level since the 1930s, Cyber Monday witnessed more than 4.3 million visitors per minute in North America; traffic was up almost 40 percent over last year. That’s a lot of non-pooping hamsters, my friends. And Black Friday was judged a critical success because sales rose 13 percent over last year. People, are we really in better shape this year to start overspending again?

One sobering note from the non-stop holiday shopping news coverage was that women are being very selective about what new clothes they’re buying this year and overall holiday shoppers over the Thanksgiving weekend were interested in bargains. Well, good for us. With the average national unemployment at 10 percent, can we really keep spending on things we want, not things we need, even if we might personally be lucky enough to have enough income coming in?

I was walking toward the office down Broadway on Monday after being gone a week on vacation when I noticed that two women’s clothing stores — the very pricey St. John boutique †and the affordable Jessica McClintock — were gone.

My first instinct was to think that was bad news. More retail in Portland’s core gone. The downtown vacancies are starting to make the street look like a scene from I Am Legend.

But as I walked to work, I thought of the price of a St. John piece, where a pair of shorts can cost $1,000, and I just couldn’t feel bad about it. (Communist!) Even if you have the money to buy those shorts, wouldn’t it be great to help a family who will have nothing this holiday season? With child poverty rates in Oregon steadily rising, and with the state having one of the highest hunger rates in the country, there are plenty of ways to spend your discretionary income that doesn’t involve buying yourself mink shorts. (Take our poll and let me know how you’re spending this year.)

One of the best holiday invitations I’ve received this season came this week from law firm Schwabe Williamson and Wyatt. They are canceling their annual party and making a substantial donation to the Oregon Food Bank. I’m looking forward to not going, and applaud them for not expecting me. And for reminding me that not everyone is pretending that we’re in good shape as 2009 crawls to a close.

Robin Doussard is Editor of Oregon Business.

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