Deals or Debt? Mexico's Controversial Black Friday

PHOTO: Juan Hernandez was one of thousands of Mexican shoppers hunting for bargains on Friday the first day of the three day shopping extravaganza known as El Buen Fin, or The Good Weekend.

At 10 p.m. on Thursday, consumers were already lining up in front of Avenida Universidad's Walmart, one of the biggest stores in México City. The store opened at midnight to make the most of "El Buen Fin," the highly-publicized, government-backed, Mexican equivalent of Black Friday.

From Friday, Nov. 16, to Monday, Nov. 19, consumers will benefit from discounts and payment plans that make this "the cheapest weekend of the year" in Mexico—or so say the billboards all over town.

But how does this compare to the shopping madness that will take over the United States next weekend?

Like in the U.S., there are lines of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people outside large retail stores. The Walmart that ABC/Univision visited even had its staff distribute sandwiches and coffee to some five hundred hardcore shoppers who had been waiting outside the store for a couple hours. That friendly tone changes once inside, and then it's every man and woman for themselves.

Enrique Gonzalez pushed around a flatbed type cart with no sides to it, on which he had stacked a 42-inch Sony TV, a DVD player and a case of wine bottles. In doing so, he was only slightly reminded of his time in Houston, a city he once visited during Black Friday.

"Over there it's 50 percent, 80 percent discount. You can find t-shirts for $2, almost at cost price. Here it is nothing like that, really," Gonzalez said.

Juan Hernández bought a distinctly large flatscreen TV on which he saved $114, about 10 percent of the TV's original retail value, but added that this came up short when compared to the savings he'd get in the United States.

"I am working for a U.S. company negotiating these kinds of products with stores over there and the discounts are much, much higher. Up to 85 percent on the provider's price, which later reflects on the retail price by 50 percent to 60 percent," Hernandez said. "I am sure they could do the same here but they don't."

Prices may not dip down as far as they do in the States. But what's striking during Mexico's Black Friday is the large amount of items sold on credit. Sound systems, television sets and microwaves can all be paid in 12-, 18-, and 24-month installments, with no interest on monthly fees.

Many customers go for such deals. But critics say that such offers are not too helpful for the Mexican consumer.

"[Many] products don't have a real discount," said Daniel de Loera, an economist from the University of Guadalajara who has done research on El Buen Fin. De Loera, told Mexican newspaper El Informador that he believed banks and retailers were the big winners during this weekend, not the Mexican consumer.

"Retailers cut deals with banks so that they can sell [items] on credit, without interest. But what is really happening is that interest rates are already being included into the [higher] price of items," De Loera said.

The temptation to buy items on credit this weekend is rather large. According to a study conducted by Mexico City's UNAM university, 75 percent of all "deals" offered to customers during last year's Buen Fin weekend did not correspond to items whose price was reduced. Instead, the deals were offered on items sold on credit to customers, who were given the chance to pay back in several months.

Statistics like this one worry Denise Rojas from consumer association "El Poder del Consumidor", [Customer Power]. For Rojas, the vast amount of items sold on credit can generate excessive debt for consumers.

"People that bought products from the Buen Fin last year are still paying for these products as we speak and will probably acquire more debt this year," she said. Rojas also warned against sales deals where items are sold on no-interest monthly payments.

"The credit might not generate immediate interest rates but if you skip a payment three months in a row, the bank will charge you the full interest," Rojas said.

Despite the debt risks, and the modest discounts, the Mexican Government's Consumer Protection Agency, PROFECO, defends the Buen Fin Initiative, which is new to Mexico as it was only introduced in the country last year.

"You can't satanize those" who sell on credit, PROFECO vice president Alejandro Celis told Mexican news site Sinembargo.com, which recently conducted a thorough investigation of the Buen Fin marketing operation.

"You have to think of the Buen Fin as a choice for customers. It is something that you can choose to participate in or not," Celis said.

Other supporters of El Buen Fin include the Mexican federal government–which last year advanced the Christmas bonuses of its employees so that they could more fully participate–and associations that represent the retail sector.

Jorge Davila directs CONCANACO, the National Confederation of Chambers of Commerce. He told ABC/Univision that the Buen Fin initiative provides a boost to the local economy.

"I think that this is definitely a win-win program, for all the actors of the economy" Dávila said. "The consumers benefit directly from cheaper products and services, industry raises its production, the government receives more taxes, the retailers sell more goods and contract more employees. It is really a virtuous cycle initiated simply by injecting more money into the economy thanks to the discounts [and the numerous items sold on credit]."

Jorge Dávila said that last year the first edition of Buen Fin generated $106 billion pesos, approximately $8 billion in sales. This year he estimates sales will increase by 30 to 40 percent.

Still, it is not clear how much of this money becomes consumer debt, owed by customers to banks. Or how many customers who bought flatscreens, sound systems and the like last year are now struggling to pay those items off.

With those issues in mind, consumer advocate Denise Rojas came up with some words of advice that might also benefit Black Friday Shoppers in the U.S.

"We urge people to be very careful and buy only what they really need, compare prices and avoid compulsive purchases," Rojas said.

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