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In the Gaping Maw of Despair That Is Black Friday Shopping, Can the Thrill of the Deal Offer Any Solace?

Searching for the best deal on an air fryer sent me down an internet rabbit hole. Here’s what I found.

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French fries cook inside an air fryer. lidiasilva/Shutterstock

The first day of November brings with it a countdown to the grand American tradition of food, family, and, increasingly, deals. While the modern shopping extravaganza that is Black Friday has been around for more than half a century, in recent years, thanks to fierce retailer competition and the rise of round-the-clock online deal chasing, Black Friday creep has turned the entire month into a 30-day-long shopping spree. Caught in a chicken-and-egg situation, retailers like Amazon and Walmart roll out pre-Black Friday deals earlier each year in a bid to capture customers’ dollars, while customers are starting to shop in October and even September thanks to the deals being pushed out before fall has even set in.

“Any money I can take out of a customer’s wallet before the holidays is less money a competitor gets. The first one who gets it wins the game,” is how retail consultant Bob Phibbs puts it in an interview with Fast Company. “If you start earlier, shoppers start earlier.”

Kitchen appliances — such as the Instant Pot, which has exploded in popularity the last two years — are a staple of holiday shopping season, featuring heavily in guides everywhere from the New York Times to Eater. It’s helpful service journalism, to be sure, but also, candidly, a cash grab: Tell readers which appliances to buy in the Black Friday gold mine → reader makes a purchase through the affiliate link that the Times or Eater or whoever so thoughtfully provides → ??? → profit. Welcome to (what’s left of) the media industry in the year 2019.

I’m not a big Black Friday shopper; I’ve never developed the fortitude needed to fight my way through large crowds or camp out in long lines at ungodly hours. But, like other shoppers who find themselves ensnared by the psychology of sales, I’ve always been a sucker for a good deal. There’s a certain high to be found in spending the hours between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. combing through online reviews, searching for the best coupons, and clicking “add to cart,” only to never check out in an exquisitely painful exercise in self-control and wasted time.

That apparently made me a prime candidate on whom to unload this assignment from my editor: “I want to send you down an internet rabbit hole to find the best Black Friday deal on like, a Vitamix (or pick your fancy appliance it doesn’t really matter).” It wasn’t about the destination so much as the journey, i.e., unpacking a process that somehow passes as “leisure” in my damaged, materialism-corrupted brain — one that millions of people would likely embark upon during Black Friday and its constellation of other shopping “holidays” (Small Business Saturday, the now-redundantly named Cyber Monday). Would this be a fruitless, possibly boring, quest for which the answer was always just going to be “Amazon”?

The first order of business was to decide which “fancy appliance” should be my holy grail. No to the Vitamix, because I don’t believe in smoothies. No, too, to the Instant Pot, which by now has transcended “trend” status and been fully absorbed into kitchen-gadget canon. So how about… an air fryer?

I remember first feeling the barest flickering of desire for an air fryer in December of last year, after reading New Yorker writer Helen Rosner’s ode to the device, an apparatus fine-tuned for the “wizardry” of replicating the effects of deep frying with just a little bit of oil. I live in New York, where the kitchens are small and any new appliance purchase generally must be vetted with the same level of seriousness as choosing which college to attend, but the way Rosner describes the increasingly buzzy gadget is unfortunately irresistible; it’s “ovoid and glossy black,” resembling “the galea of a lightly villainous robot” (chic!) and capable of producing “blistery fried peppers, meltingly tender roasted tomatoes, jacket potatoes with sizzling skins, broccoli florets with just the right shadow of bittersweet char.”

Steeling myself with a stern inner monologue about wants versus needs (something like, “Fuck you, you don’t need an air fryer!”), I then had to decide which model to pursue, an undertaking that truly accentuated one of the great problems with our material world: There’s too much shit. Rosner’s piece recommended a 2.2-quart Crux air fryer (normally $115, currently $50); New York magazine’s the Strategist suggested a Cosori machine ($120), based on Amazon ratings; an Eater guide endorsed an Instant™ Vortex™ Plus model ($79), from the makers of the Instant Pot. One search result led me to a “well-rated digital air fryer … on sale for $40, today only” (the deal had elapsed by the time I found that page), while another took me to an article promoting an air fryer on sale at Walmart… that was paid for by Walmart.

There were too many air fryers, and there were too many articles — fueled by SEO and editorial strategy to shore up e-commerce efforts in an industry obliterated by shrinking ad rates — recommending said air fryers. Search for “air fryer best deal” or “black friday kitchen appliances” or even just “gift guide,” and you are inundated by seemingly every publication — from niche outfits like something called “The Krazy Coupon Lady” to such prestigious outlets as the New York Times and Esquire. The items they endorse are all proclaimed the “best,” or “ultimate,” or “unique,” producing a paradoxical sense of inflated sameness: When everything is so awesome, how can any of them actually be the best?

Paralyzed by the excess of stuff, I turned to what I habitually consider the ultimate authority in telling me how to spend my money: Wirecutter. (I’m not the only one — type any product into Google, and chances are the search bar will autocomplete “Wirecutter” when you’re still on “W.”) Wirecutter, which was acquired by the New York Times for about $30 million in 2016, surpassed $20 million in revenue last year, the site’s president and general manager told Nieman Lab.

The only problem was that Wirecutter had decided to be a total nerd about its air fryer recommendation: “The Best Air Fryer Is a Convection Toaster Oven,” reads one headline. “Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Air frying isn’t the same thing as deep frying. Air fryers are really mini convection ovens that use a fan to rapidly circulate hot air, cooking food faster and more evenly than a conventional oven would,” Michael Sullivan writes.

Not only did this assertion make me realize that I have led my entire life without knowing what a convection oven is (obligatory detour: “What Is the Difference Between a Convection Oven and a Conventional Oven?”), but it also threatened to derail the entire endeavor. It was almost as if, as Wirecutter opined, human beings don’t actually need every shiny new electronic doodad out there, if they just squeeze a little more use out of existing toaster ovens or, hell, even their regular convection ovens — almost as if the continued existence of a gadget industrial complex is predicated on convincing consumers that the small degrees of optimization promised by much-hyped unitasker devices are worth filling the world with an ever-growing pile of plastic parts and metal bits and physical stuff, and the supply chains and delivery trucks needed to get them all to your doorstep within three to five business days.

But I digress. I went with Wirecutter’s second-place pick, the Philips Avance Collection Airfryer HD9641/96, a model also recommended by America’s Test Kitchen. Its price across multiple retailers’ websites was $249.99 the first time I checked, on November 3; less than a week later, it had dropped down to $199.99, a change reflected across Amazon, Best Buy, Williams Sonoma, Walmart, and Costco. While a 20 percent discount seems irresistible, that’s not even the lowest it could conceivably go: Honey, a browser extension that can track Amazon prices and notify you once a product’s price drops beneath a certain threshold, shows that for one brief, glorious August day, the Philips air fryer had been priced at $149.99 on Amazon — $100, or 40 percent, less than its standard $250 price tag. There’s a chance holiday shopping season could push this even lower, judging by price dips throughout fall and winter of the past two years. That’s not even mentioning potential in-store doorbuster deals; in 2018, J.C. Penney opened on Thanksgiving with a $4.99 air fryer deal that sold out within 20 minutes at one Texas location.

Amazon, the questionable gold standard of online shopping, reportedly tweaks product prices more than 2.5 million times a day, meaning that “an average product listed on Amazon changes prices every 10 minutes,” per Business Insider. Now, you could sit and refresh the page every 10 minutes, or you could sign up to get an alert if the price changes, but what if time is money, and the hours you just spent researching air fryers means you’re already operating at a loss, and you just need your ovoid, glossy black appliance and its perfectly charred broccoli florets right now?

Assuming the price is the same across major retailers (it is), assuming you have all the necessary accounts and memberships and what have you to make a purchase from any of these retailers (I do), assuming shipping is “free” (it is), what’s the deciding factor? Is it speed? Both Williams-Sonoma and Costco estimate the item will arrive in three to five business days; Walmart says in three days. With Amazon Prime, 48 hours is the standard, although that guarantee comes with the added moral weight of knowing that, somewhere, warehouse workers and delivery drivers are paying the human cost of free two-day shipping. With that in mind, it seems nearly unfathomable for Best Buy to be able to fulfill its promise of delivering the item tomorrow. How is it possible, even with Best Buy’s reputation for decent employment practices — and do I really want to know the answer?

I’m opting out of Black Friday this year — not out of any heroic or morally upstanding reason, but because practically speaking, I’ll be traveling and off the grid. But despite that cop-out, I still have my Amazon Prime membership, making me among the most contemptible of anybody involved in this snake-eating-tail circle of unsustainable consumerism and bad labor practices: a hypocrite.

As one such phony, I don’t have any room to lecture anyone on how ethically and environmentally dubious this race-to-the-bottom culture of deals and never-ending shopping is, and it’s not like I believe that one individual’s decision to not buy an air fryer this November is a meaningful substitute for large-scale policies that govern how corporations treat workers and the world’s finite resources. So what am I — or any consumer — supposed to do about it?

There is, at least, one thing you could do on Black Friday. When eyeing a marked-down air fryer, or a Vitamix, or an Instant Pot, or whatever, ask: Do you really need all this stuff in your cart? If the answer is yes, cool, that’s fine. But if the answer is no, perhaps the course of action is to smile ruefully at your screen like a psychopath, leave the stuff untouched in your cart, close the window, and put your phone away.