Black Friday has to be one of the worst traditions in America. The morning after we give "thanks" for our friendships, family, and community, we pile into our cars before dawn and head to the nearest shopping mall or big-box store so we can stand in a long line for the right to buy cheap goods made by people working for atrociously low wages. Ugh.
And for Oakland, Black Friday is even worse. Because the city has relatively few big-box and chain outlets, many Oaklanders leave town on the day after Thanksgiving and head to Emeryville, Hayward, Walnut Creek, or San Francisco in search of bargains. In fact, this migration happens throughout the holiday season — and the other eleven months of the year. It's why Oakland loses an estimated $1 billion a year in retail sales to other cities.
In 2009, a small group of Oakland residents and shop-local activists, led by Kerri Johnson, decided to create an antidote to the Black Friday scourge. They dubbed it "Plaid Friday," and it's designed to celebrate Oakland's local economy and its small retailers, many of which sell locally made goods.
Instead of a race to the bottom, in which the steepest discounts are prized above all else, Plaid Friday is sort of a rolling uniquely Oakland party (although there will be plenty of discounts to be had, too). Now in its sixth year, the annual event has expanded to become Plaid Friday Weekend, with small retailers participating throughout Oakland's commercial districts, featuring pop-up vendors selling sustainably grown food and drink offerings.
"As a small business, it's so hard to compete out there," said Johnson, who operates Marion and Rose's Workshop on 9th Street in Old Oakland. "We thought, 'Instead of boycotting shopping [on Black Friday], why not take that day and do something fun?'" Marion and Rose, like many small businesses, will be giving 10 percent discounts to customers who wear plaid on Friday. The store also will be offering live music, cookies, and a gift-wrapping station.
Since its inception in Oakland five years ago, Plaid Friday has expanded to cities and towns throughout the nation, including in Oregon, Colorado, Arkansas, and New Hampshire (although not San Francisco), Johnson said. According to Erin Kilmer Neel of Oakland Grown, a co-sponsor of Plaid Friday (the Express is also a co-sponsor), in Oakland, small retailers in the following districts will be taking part this year:
Temescal, Piedmont Avenue, Rockridge, KONO, Montclair, Dimond, Laurel, downtown, Uptown, Old Oakland, Jack London, Grand-Lakeshore, Eastlake, Fruitvale, West Oakland (Mandela Parkway), and Woodminster. For a list of what local retailers will be offering on Plaid Friday, see OaklandGrown.org
"I just think that Plaid Friday resonates with people," Kilmer Neel said. "It resonates with the East Bay personality — caring about our local economy."
Plaid Friday is also about having fun. It's not about battling over the last parking space at the mall or rushing to get there first to make sure the discounted tablets and flatscreen TVs aren't sold out yet. It's about celebrating the local community, running into neighbors and friends at the store, and exploring Oakland's bounty of mom-and-pop businesses. "Black Friday is so stressful for people," Kilmer Neel noted. "Plaid Friday is so much more casual."
There's also an argument to be made that the growth of Plaid Friday has not only helped change the consciousness of Oakland residents and their perceptions about shopping, but also those of the city's political leaders. During this year's Oakland mayoral campaign, many of the candidates seemed to reach a consensus that Oakland may not necessarily need big-box retailers or shopping malls to have a thriving local economy. Mayor Jean Quan has been a staunch supporter of Plaid Friday — and so is Mayor-elect Libby Schaaf. In fact, in interviews with the Express during the campaign, only one of the top candidates advocated for Oakland to shift its economic focus to attracting big-box retailers and mall-anchor stores: Joe Tuman. And he ended up finishing in fifth place in the election.
"Oakland is the center of the sustainable economy," Schaaf said in an interview after the election. "It's also a great place to go shopping. It's a little more of an adventure. But like many adventures, it's worth it. It's not about doing all of your shopping in one sterile mall."
Schaaf is known for wearing clothes and jewelry made by local artisans. Her favorite Oakland designer is Lesley Evers, who has a store on College Avenue in Rockridge, and who produces clothing that's made locally by artisans earning a living wage.
Plaid Friday, Schaaf said, is about "supporting small entrepreneurs and unique outlets — that's more of Oakland's style." The new mayor, who will be sworn into office in early January, is also convinced that shopping local and boosting the local economy are pivotal to the city's economic prosperity.
"I believe our future will grow out of our past," said Schaaf, an Oakland native. "We've always been a city of artists, of makers, of people who do things with their hands ... of creative entrepreneurs."
According to Kilmer Neel, Plaid Friday has been a boon to Oakland's small businesses in previous years. Anecdotally, some local retailers have reported to her that their sales on Plaid Friday have jumped 20 to 25 percent since the event began, and that more and more residents are sporting plaid on the day after Thanksgiving. For many local retailers, "it's their best day of the year," Kilmer Neel said.
If you're an Oakland resident, shopping local on Plaid Friday and for the rest of this holiday season is also selfishly smart. If Oakland can recoup more of the retail dollars it loses to other communities each year, then that means more sales tax revenues to help fund essential programs, including public safety, parks and libraries, street repaving, and efforts to build more bike and pedestrian pathways. Shopping local also provides much-needed income for local business owners, many of whom live in the city, and thus have more money to spend locally. Those businesses also provide jobs to Oakland residents. Shopping local is an essential ingredient in community building. "It's all about relying on each other — working together to bring the city up together," Johnson said.
In other words, Plaid Friday is a win-win-win. And it's a better way to honor the giving of thanks than spending your day in a cookie-cutter shopping mall at stores owned by large out-of-town corporations.