Ruth Samuelson

The annual mega-sale concept sees a soft landing south of the border

MEXICO CITY—Black Friday is the unofficial U.S. holiday that celebrates spending money.

We all know the hysteria-related headlines: People line up for TVs like they’re waiting for food rationings. Occasionally, riots break out. A few years ago, a shopper stampede even killed a Walmart worker.

But when it comes to recharging the economy, is it really that bad after all? We don’t want all our stores to meet Borders or Circuit City’s fate.

Countries that don't even celebrate Thanksgiving have grabbed hold of the Black Friday concept in recent years, including Mexico. Last weekend, the nation experienced its first “El Buen Fin," four days of deals coinciding with a long weekend commemorating the Mexican Revolution. The name means “The Good Weekend.”

The program, coordinated by the federal government and private business organizations, claimed to be the “Cheapest Weekend of the Year.”

When President Felipe Calderón formally launched the initiative, he said it aimed to “provide a strong drive to the economic activity in the commercial sector, the industrial sector and the service sector,” and “generate employment.”

To foster spending during the “Buen Fin,” the Mexican government paid roughly 2 million employees half their “aguinaldo,” a Christmas bonus, early.

I took in the “Buen Fin” in several spots around Mexico City. On Sunday, I visited a mall, which appeared slightly more crowded than usual. The stores offered unimpressive reductions – 15 percent seemed standard.

“From what I’ve seen, there’s nothing extraordinary,” says shopper Jessica Santiago about the discounts. Nevertheless, she had an idea to spur more sales.

“The should give everyone their ‘aguinaldo’ early. We don’t work for the government,” she says.

Aside from typical mall chains like Zara, the “Buen Fin” website listed a broad range of partners: chains selling mattresses, eyewear and auto parts; big box stores; car makers like Ford and Volkswagen; and banks also participated. I saw one, Banamex, offering three to six months interest free for purchases.

Organizers and stores talked-up the “Buen Fin” as if customers should feel civically obligated to shop: “Support the Mexican economy by joining #Elbuenfin” read one tweet from program coordinators. Given that tone, I wondered if the initiative had touched neighborhood shops in any way.

“The chains that exist here are transnational,” says Ramiro Aguirre Garin, who was peeved about the entire “Buen Fin” concept. “They don’t come to produce. They come and provide work, but they pay very little.”

So shocker: Walmart receives the same complaints abroad. Also it should be noted: there are big box Mexican-founded operations.

On Monday, the event’s final day, I strolled down a thoroughfare near my apartment and found most of the small shops closed. (It was a national holiday, but malls were open.)

One notable exception was La Ribera, an antiquated-looking Mexican footwear chain. A sign advertising 15 percent off in the entire store hung above the front door.

A saleswoman told me that on Sunday, sales doubled compared with the normal haul. But the other days, business was as usual.

Down the street, a mattress/bed store, also a Mexican brand, remained open. The store, at that point, looked pretty much empty. I asked the manager if and when she felt like the program had boosted sales. She gave a half-hearted response, which mirrored most I’d heard about the “Buen Fin.”

“All of the days were decent,” she says.

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