Black Friday breaks loose

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Black Friday has turned a corner. The traditional start of the holiday shopping season has become a cultural phenomenon that spans days, and even weeks. While Black Friday naysayers criticize stores for pushing the opening of the day into Thanksgiving evening, American consumers simply shrug their shoulders, shop, and engage in a ritual that seems to transcend any economic condition. And I don’t see any signs of the Black Friday momentum slowing down.

In past years, I have waken up in the middle of the night, stood in frigid lines with Black Friday shoppers, and studied the shopping phenomenon in places ranging from the Chicago suburbs to a small town in the Wisconsin northwoods. This year, I was already suffering from a serious case of Black Friday fatigue by the time the most famous shopping day of the season arrived on November 25. By then, I had already been inundated with Black Friday promotions from retailers such as Amazon, whose “countdown to Black Friday” sale hit my email in-box on November 13. And you couldn’t do any last-minute Thanksgiving errands at Target without encountering a Black Friday war zone, as Target’s pre-Thanksgiving 4-day sale resulted in aisles saturated with merchandise at door-buster prices. USA Today reported that retailers ranging from Sears to RadioShack were using social media to promote Black Friday deals in a run-up to the day.

For Black Friday 2011, I didn’t even need to wake up in the wee hours to visit Kohl’s and Target for 5:00 a.m. openings. So many stores were open at midnight that I simply hopped in my car and continued my Thanksgiving evening once the dinner and movie-watching festivities at my house had subsided.

I expected crowds. I encountered an overwhelming crush of humanity. Everyplace I visited, whether Best Buy, Kohl’s, or Target, the scene was the same: parking lots jammed with cars, police on hand for security, and long lines stretching around blocks like human snakes. It wasn’t just the Best Buys of the world who opened at midnight; any retailer who could benefit from its proximity to Best Buy was lit up and ready for business, whether GameStop or Bed, Bath, and Beyond. The suburban strip malls looked as jammed as they are on a busy weekend — shortly before midnight on the evening of Thanksgiving.

Shoppers were lured by the promise of finding merchandise ranging from 99-cent DVDs to 42-inch flat screen TVs for a few hundred dollars. The deals looked like the kind you encounter on Black Friday every year. But you’d think the stores were giving away merchandise judging from the size of the crowds I encountered. The Best Buy on Butterfield Road in Downers Grove was a tangled mass of sweaty bodies. Getting into the store was merely one hurdle to overcome; paying for your merchandise was another. When I asked a Best Buy employee where the back of the check-out line was, he scanned the crowd overwhelming the aisles and said, “Just find a spot in one of these lines if you can.” Indeed, the entire store floor was a mass of overlapping lines.

Unlike Augie Ray, who said in a Facebook post that he saw “poorer people trying to purchase something they could not otherwise afford” at a Best Buy he visited in Texas, I encountered middle-class suburbanites (like me) clearly having a good time and bonding over a social experience (as I have on previous Black Friday outings). As shoppers emerged from Best Buy toting their Dynex 24-inch monitors, others stuck in line cheered and clapped.

“Where’s the economic downturn?” a man next to me in line scoffed when I mentioned news accounts of shoppers motivated by economically challenging times to save big on Black Friday. “This is Best Buy — does anyone in line really need all the TVs they’re buying?”

Based on the conversations I had with Black Friday shoppers, it was not unusual for shoppers I talked with to turn Black Friday into something of an all-night adventure that included stops at multiple stores and a night out at Steak ‘n Shake, especially for younger people on Thanksgiving break from school. And shoppers standing in long lines inside stores clearly enjoyed entertaining each other, such as the Twentysomethings who took turns showing off with the Big Ben Magnetic Edition Cyberbike at Best Buy in Woodridge, Illinois.

Some stores are starting to figure out that you can create an experience for shoppers standing in line, too. For instance, select Best Buys featured special “outdoor movie night” screenings of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. But by and large, retailers pretty much focus on moving people into and out of their stores. When I look at how readily shoppers entertain each other in line, I wonder if retailers are missing more opportunities to add to the experience — for example, having sales people demonstrate latest Wii games and participate in a little guided selling?

Retailers could also redefine Black Friday by donating some of their haul to charity, as some local businesses in Toledo, Ohio, have done. ┬áDoing so might staunch the criticism that Black Friday has gotten out of control and intruded on the Thanksgiving tradition. But I don’t think retailers care too much about the criticism except when shoppers start misbehaving in line.

Ironically, as I bided my time looking at Facebook on my iPhone while standing in a long line at Best Buy, I noticed a special Black Friday sale announced by the Pink Floyd Store — this from the band that derided materialism in the song “Money.”

Welcome to the Black Friday machine.

2 thoughts on “Black Friday breaks loose

  1. David,

    Very interesting perspective and observations. Commerce and capitalism are deeply engrained in our culture and Black Friday is simply an organic confluence of those three concepts. If this is how people want to spend their time, then who am I to complain. I\’m just glad I got out of retail before all this madness became the norm. I would however like to see the name changed. Do I have any suggestions? I\’m so glad you asked, of course I do. Freaky Friday, Neurotic Friday, Free For All Friday, Retailer\’s Revenge, I Don\’t Like Fridays, Friday I\’m in Love With You, Thursday Night Lights, TGIF.

  2. Thank you, Steve. I cannot imagine what it must be like to work retail during Black Friday. I also agree that commerce and capitalism are so ingrained in our culture that shopping is as natural a ritual to many people as playing catch or going to the movies together. I think the Black Friday naysayers often forget this crucial aspect about the phenomenon: consumers — our habits, wants, and desire, for better or worse — are fueling Black Friday. As for a new name: maybe consumers should vote. I could see the National Retail Federation sponsoring some sort of crowd-sourced effort to that end. Enjoy the rest of your Thanksgiving weekend.

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