Black Friday: Lessons Learned

A few years ago, when big retail giants started the troubling trend of opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday, daring to begin on the first minute of the day (where have those good days gone?), I admit I was caught up in the glint and anticipatory glimmer of a late-night excursion to get my own child-labor hours' worth of deeply discounted goods.

I had just enjoyed a stunning and classy Thanksgiving feast with vanloads of extended family, followed later in the evening by a quintessential five-hour game of Risk with my teenaged nephews. With the winding down of what was a perfect holiday, I had a momentary lapse of judgment. Walmart was opening at midnight and visions of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" blasting over the intercom while shoppers blithely glided through the aisles filled me with curiosity.

I was still a struggling student living in my parents' home with no real depth or power to the plastic in my wallet. But I figured, "what the hell" and my curiosity got the best of me; besides, my credit card wasn't maxed out so possibilities were technically endless.

Once I got there and assessed the situation it was as if one needed a masters degree in post-holiday retail logistics and shopping technique. It aggravated me how deeply confused I got, and how seemingly no one else was. Didn't we all read the same newspaper insert? Even so, almost one in the morning, Walmart wasn't as busy or as packed as it would later become, but to me it was utter chaos. To my surprise and chagrin, I realized that most of the advertised "Black Friday" sale prices didn't start until 5:00 a.m., which confused me, even further. What the hell was everyone buying?! And why was the store open?

To this end, I set about to find some concrete answers. Finding this knowledge suddenly became the errand I had to complete, digital cameras and USB drives be damned, there was a social phenomenon going on and I had to get to the bottom of it.

When I could finally locate them, I confronted two employees in different parts of the store, who each gave me very different and not-at-all clear answers. I was dumbfounded. One acted as if she were put out at my naïveté and utter ignorance. Another, having little interest in my quest, just interrupted my questioning by simply walking away in the middle of my sentence. Not to be mishandled thus, I attempted to maintain her attention.

"But, but," I protested, as a small child would. "But why this and why is that?" I seemed to say, starting to make little sense of my own questioning, while chasing down the store associate who began to walk faster in eager retreat. I was beginning to embarrass myself, shouting, "Where is this $69 digital camera I want that regularly retails for $89 or possibly more?" pointing to the picture on the ad. "It's what? A secret? Really? So, they'll announce it over the intercom at some random time in the night? With mad rushes throughout the store to ensue?" The answer was yes to all the above.

Wait a second, I thought. Shouldn't Walmart of all stores be extra sensitive to such tactics? Should they not be more careful not to have mad dashes and stampedes to mysterious sale locations, spontaneously announced over the store intercom? Where was the Wilson Pickett song?

I mean, wasn't Walmart the retailer who hosted the infamous Black Friday stampede of 2008? Would that terrifying and damning day humans became akin to wildebeests on the great Retail Serengeti of eastern Walmart become a beloved Black Friday ritual? Did we forget that it garnered this headline from the New York Daily News: "Worker dies at Long Island Walmart after being trampled in Black Friday stampede"?

Unfortunately stampedes not unlike the one that ended the life of Jdimytai Damour still go on every year. Sure this happens metaphorically in our Big-C Capitalistic society, but it feels more severe when the "little guy" gets squashed in the very literal sense of that word.

So I figured rather quickly that I didn't want to trample or be trampled upon by greedy mouth breathers all racing to score a $69 digital camera that in all reality I could probably get for that price online somewhere, if I really needed it.

Unsatisfied, I was still unsure if I should stick around, you know, just in case something came up. To bide my time, I found safety and solace in the book section where I happened upon a lovely, middle-aged woman with a festive expression. I picked up a John Grisham novel, which sat next to the book she was perusing. She followed my hand with her gaze until our eyes met and in the stillness of that moment with all the rest of the mad world fluttering about us, it felt as if we were the only two sane people somehow trapped at Walmart in the middle of the night.

She seemed eager to speak to me. "That's a good book," she blurted with unusual enthusiasm. I held on to the paperback, not sure what her next move was as I told her I had just finished reading The Appeal, to which she affirmed enthusiastically that it also was "a good book." I said I was glad to know. She told me she read most every John Grisham book. I responded, saying I had read just the one. Then, to punctuate the intimate and profound exchange, she said, "well, you'll like this one, it's really good," and sauntered away like an apparition -- the ghost of Black Friday Past, perhaps?

Finding myself alone in a hidden corner of a big box retail jungle, and calculating that the actual "Black Friday" deals were a mystifying two hours away from being officially official, I cracked open the value edition of Street Lawyer, by John Grisham. I wandered the store, devouring page after page, looking for somewhere to sit (side note: it is a good book). I leaned against a tower of crock-pots (no discount) and read until my eyelids wore heavy. I looked at my watch, 3:30 a.m. and only one-point-five hours to go.

I began to feel faint, lightheaded, and the glee of shoppers skipping down the aisles made my head spin as well as my stomach churn. Forget the camera, I thought. I'd have to charge it anyway. I put the book back along with the other inconsequential, non-sale toiletries I had somehow acquired during my John Grisham wandering spell, and walked out of the store just as I had walked in, empty handed. I hadn't scored any great deals. I never cashed in on some sweet sale. But that day I realized that I did accomplish what everyone else on Black Friday hopes to do. I saved money.