Culture At Large

National Returns Day and the Consumer Liturgical Calendar

Tamara Hill Murphy

Any savvy consumer knows the shopper’s triduum of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the relatively recent addition of Green Monday. How many, though, have heard about National Returns Day? Last week, on Jan. 5, shoppers returned 1.3 million packages. That’s only the number forecasted by UPS. Other carriers like Federal Express and the United States Postal Service will add their own returns, creating a mind-boggling tonnage of unwanted merchandise headed back to store shelves.

Admittedly, I’m not a very savvy consumer. I tend to miss all the important shopping days, which means that about Dec. 18, I start scrambling. I don’t think there’s anything very spiritual about that, nor do I think returning unwanted gifts is inherently consumeristic. I do think that the trend of more and more shopping holy days says something about us, as a culture, that a discerning Christian might want to consider. 

Thinking about the newly designated National Returns Day, I can’t help but recall James K.A. Smith's description of the shopping mall as our modern-day cathedral of worship. In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith crafts the term "cultural liturgies" to describe the practices, routines, and rituals that have the most profound, formative effects on our identities as individuals within our culture. In the metaphor of the mall-as-cathedral, Smith holds up the routines, images, and habits of modern-day retail consumerism as an example of a powerful cultural liturgy. 

It’s not a stretch to extend this metaphor of malls as places of worship to consider marketing strategies as a sort of liturgical calendar. Like the most formative dates of the Christian year, consumerism comes with its own set of holy days. Smith’s premise is that these routines of consumerism serve as calls and acts of "worship," forming us into cultural beings assimilated to a certain belief system with the power to infuse all the rest of our habits and attitudes. So what are the calls to worship we receive from special shopping days each year? Black Friday—the day to get as much as you can for as little as you can—comes with a fairly obvious call to action. What sort of action—or liturgy—is National Returns Day invoking?

Like the most formative dates of the Christian year, consumerism comes with its own set of holy days.

For retailers eager to assess their bottom line from holiday sales, the day calls for making the most out of additional interactions with customers to inspire more sales. According to a study commissioned by the National Retail Foundation, 48 percent of all United States consumers were back in the shopping malls last week—many of them returning unwanted gifts. A Forbes article attempts to spin this potentially disheartening news for retailers by stressing quality customer service, easy returns, and follow-up sales. The article reads as a pep talk for store managers presumably exhausted from the December sales push: Upsell! Make a good impression! Send them home with more!

If that’s the message for retailers, what’s the message they, in turn, craft for us? Do any of these “calls to worship” sound familiar? “You deserve to get exactly what you wanted!” “Tired of getting [fill in the blank] every year?” “It’s finally time to shop for yourself!”

I don’t know about you, but the thought of repackaging stuff, hoping like crazy I’ve met all the criteria to successfully unload some doodad I never wanted in the first place, might require a good pep talk of its own. How about this counter-cultural suggestion instead? Keep the gift. Find a place in your life for the odd assortment of gifts people took the time to hand you last month. Sure, next year you can be a little clearer that you’ve always hated the way fuchsia washes out your skin tone, that you no longer have a CD player, or that you gave up magazine subscriptions when you heard the world was running out of forests. But for now, maybe try a little humor and add a dash of lighthearted gratitude. If that doesn’t work for you, there’s always Goodwill.

We always make Mary sound so spiritual when we read that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Perhaps she was actually thinking, “I wonder if I can get the gift receipt for this myrrh?” Maybe it wasn’t until years later that she realized the gift of redemption wrapped up in that unusual, spectacular offering. Likewise, maybe that ridiculous kitchen gadget, gaudy pair of earrings, or bestselling book by an author you secretly despise says something about the vulnerable generosity of someone in your life that’s more valuable than their ability to select gifts on point with all of your current lifestyle preferences.

We can be Christians in the merchandise return line and we can be Christians accepting gifts from others, no matter how imperfectly chosen. Either way, let’s be aware that we are choosing a cultural liturgy in response to what we most love and value. Before traipsing along to the shopper’s liturgical calendar of deal days and must-shop-now enticements, let’s ponder all this in our hearts, so that we may be formed most by the Giver of every good and perfect gift.

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Money, Home & Family, Money