Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Black Friday

Long before the sun rises on the day after Thanksgiving, a curious thing will happen.

Large numbers of our fellow citizens, still groggy from food and drink, will gather like an army of zombies and march through the darkness to the nation's marketplaces

When the doors fly open at 4 a.m. they will be transformed into shopping Marines, engaging in consumer combat until the last bargain has been snatched from the shelves.

It is no exercise for the faint of heart. Only the fast, only the strong survive.

There will be valor and bravery, cowardice and fear.

And that's in the first 10 minutes.

It's not for nothing they call it Black Friday. That term originated in Philadelphia beause of the heavy traffic on that day.

More recently, merchants and the media have used it instead to refer to the beginning of the period in which retailers are in the black (turning a profit).

In the current economic climate, most merchants would probably settle for Off White Friday.

Come to think of it, it might be called Black Friday because it reveals the dark side of human nature. Mix up a bunch of adrenalin pumped shoppers, disinterested clerks and a shortage of sale merchandise, throw them together in the pre-dawn darkness and you have all the ingredients of a Japanese game show.

It is said to be the busiest shopping day of the year although recently that factoid has been debunked. The last Saturday before Christmas now holds that honor.

And, in keeping with the times we live in, there is now Cyber Monday, a busy day for online retailers, with some sites offering low prices and other promotions on that day. It's unclear if you have to rise at 3 a.m. to cyber shop. I'm guessing you do.

Black Friday remains, however, the stuff of legends. The Internet is full of stories of those who battled and survived.

One woman told of the time she headed to Toys 'R Us at 5 a.m. As she came to the final last item on her list -- a Tickle Me Elmo -- she saw that it was the last one on the shelf and started running. As she reached for the furry red monster with that infectious laugh, another shopper reached for it as well. Neither intended to let go.

"I saw the Elmo first," she said. "She saw me going after it and all of a sudden she wanted it too, I was determined to get that Elmo for my grandson."

A sales manager took the toy away from them before it broke and said they were acting like children, she recalled. He gave the last Tickle Me Elmo to someone else who'd asked him - before the fight -- if there were any other Elmo's left in the store.

Another guy and his brother recounted how they pitched a tent in front of a store complete with propane heater and laptops loaded with their favorite movies to wait in relative comfort until the stores opened. Unfortunately, a friend who had been drinking stopped by for a visit and promptly threw up in their tent, driving them into the cold with the rest of the masses.

Other stories seem to follow a common pattern. Suzy or Sammy Shopper rise at 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. or some other ungodly hour and slouch off to Walmart or Circuit City or Sears or some other big box behemoth.

No matter what time they go, it seems, the lines are already long, the parking lots are full. People camp out and try to survive foul weather, ill tempered fellow shoppers and crafty line cutters so save a few bucks.

Store clerks usually pass out coupons to those waiting in line for the "door buster" sale items in an attempt to avoid full-out stampedes.

But there is trickery afoot. Some shoppers use carts to block aisles so they can rush unimpeded to their merchandise. Others go to the store a day early and stash goods in different departments to avoid the competition. Rules? There are no rules.

Almost every blog I read concluded that precious few of the advertised specials are in stock and many shoppers go home angry and frustrated even after waiting in line all night.

Those same bloggers seem to chalk it up to bad preparation on their part and vow to return next year even earlier and more determined which leads me to an inescapable conclusion: Americans my not be great bargainers but they are great bargain hunters, willing to undergo untold discomfort and grief to save a few bucks.

As for me, I have my schedule all planned out.

Thanksgiving day: Enjoy the family and watch football, not necessarily in that order. Eat too much, watch more football, doze off. Help with dishes then doze off before going to bed.

Black Friday: Sleep through the whole thing. Somehow, Christmas gift giving will take care it itself. It always does. Watch more football. Doze off. Think about going to the gym but nap instead. Eat leftovers in moderation. Think about putting Christmas lights up. Doze instead. Eventually go to bed hoping everyone who braved Black Friday found the bargains they sought.

Happy holidays.

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