11/23/2011 11:59 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2011

Black Friday 2011: Unemployed Turn To Personal Shopping For Holiday Cash

Laurie Black, a 32-year-old preschool teacher from Auburn, Mass., finds herself out of a job this holiday season for the second year in a row. But she's not going to let it stop her from shopping on Black Friday.

Along with a few other enterprising -- and out-of-work -- shoppers, Black is offering her services to those who don't want to stand in lines or risk being trampled on the most hectic shopping day of the year. Black will score you the "doorbuster" deals that come only for those willing to wait hours in cold, New England parking lots -- in exchange for 15 percent of your total purchases, in cash or even prepaid Walmart gift cards.

Though the recession has ostensibly passed, unemployment is still high at 9 percent. And for many of the 13.9 million Americans still out of work, shopping on Black Friday has become a luxury they can no longer afford. But a few of the jobless with an entrepreneurial streak, like Laurie Black, are refusing to be left with empty bags.

In New Hampshire, Philadelphia and Virginia, among other places, self-proclaimed Black Friday experts are posting classifieds, advertising "DEAL HUNTING SERVICES" alongside delivery, errand-running, gift wrapping and gift storage. One man in Detroit offers "personal security/bodyguard services for your Black Friday shopping experience." He does not list a rate.

With four days to the holiday, Black has yet to receive any calls from potential clients. Still, she tries to be optimistic about this year's holiday season. "I love shopping and love shopping for other people," she writes in her ad. "Lets help each other shall we ..."

Black, who has shopped on Black Friday for the past 15 years, would also love to buy presents for her two sons and her disabled sister, whom she supports. But with no income and an eviction looming, the family's shopping will have to be done in the discount aisle in January, if at all.

"It's a tight Christmas," Black says. But then again, Black Friday isn't just about the money. "I'd go shopping not even for the deals. You meet the nicest people."

Desperation Discounts

Retailers are counting on Black Friday this holiday season, investing in ad campaigns, seasonal hires and ever-earlier store openings to get Americans shopping again. Target's 1,767 U.S. stores will increase their staffs by 67 percent and open at midnight for Black Friday this year. Walmarts will open at 10 p.m.

Still, retailers acknowledge that spending isn't what it was before the recession.

"Persistently high unemployment, an erratic stock market, modest income growth and rising consumer prices are all combining to impact spending this holiday season," National Retail Federation Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz concluded in October.

Melissa Wolford, a 27-year-old student at Lincoln University from California, Missouri also posted an ad to work as a Black Friday personal shopper to make up for lost income. Over the past eight months, business at her wedding-planning service has dried up.

"I went from having a steady stream [of customers] to nothing," says Wolford, who is also an ordained minister. "We're a small town in a rural area. There's not a lot of opportunities."

But even if people don't have money to throw big weddings, Wolford thought they might still go Black Friday shopping in nearby Jefferson City. "Whenever I've been really low on money, I've always tried to go," she says. "So I thought -- why not offer to do it for other people?"

For every person like Wolford who can barely afford to shop at all, she guesses there are more who desperately need to get the best deals possible.

"The economy is bad," she says. "People want to be able to buy their family stuff and can't afford regular prices. It's the one time of the year you can shop for a big purchase."

But even if Wolford could afford to pay someone to shop for her, she would never do it, she says. Wolford, like Black, has been shopping Black Friday for years, starting when she was a little girl tagging alongside her mom. "I really, really like a sale," she explains.

Wolford has posted her ad multiple times, but has yet to receive any calls. If it doesn't work out, she plans to use the little money she has and go shopping with her fiance, she says. In particular, she's eyeing one of Walmart's prepaid cell phones that will be on sale for $35. She plans to get to the store around 8:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving to line up.

Kristal Braley, who also planned to work as a Black Friday personal shopper, expected the new service to catch on. The holiday season already creates around 500,000 seasonal jobs each year, according to the National Retail Federation. Last year, the 23-year-old student at the University of Texas was hired to hand out fliers at 4 a.m. at the San Marcos Outlet Mall in Austin, Texas.

"It was a madhouse. Everyone was stressed out. Kids were tired and being dragged around," says Braley, who has a child herself. "I felt really bad for everybody and wished I could have helped. After seeing that, I thought, 'There's gotta be people out there who just don't want to deal with this.'"

So far, Braley has not received any calls either, though still hopes that there might some last-minute, hectic shoppers in need of help. "Otherwise I'll be sleeping through Black Friday, I suppose," she says.

Amanda Busch, a student from East Valley, Arizona who shopped last year for co-workers, thinks that the business model is sound but that a Craigslist ad might not be the best way to advertise.

"The idea is sketchy to some people because of fraudulent scams," she says. "I knew my shoppers personally last season so it wasn't an issue."

Good Fun in Hard Times

For many dedicated Black Friday shoppers -- like Wolford and Black -- the holiday is too important of a tradition to be missed, even if time or the money isn't there. Black remembers what it was like in better times.

"My brother will watch the boys for me. We'll all go at 11 p.m. and sit until the store opens at 5 a.m. with our hot drinks, chairs, umbrellas. Everyone's talking about what they're going to get and who they're going to make happy. It's nice. It's not all about me, me, me."

This year, Black just hopes she gets a few calls in response to her ad so she can buy Christmas presents for her kids. But she's not overly optimistic.

"It's the same for everyone around me," she says. "No jobs."

This article was first published on AOL DailyFinance

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