'Black Friday' is patently absurd

November 23, 2007

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Idiots line up and camp out in tents in front of Best Buy two full days before Black Friday. I think they were actually there since Monday.

Today, the day after Thanksgiving, is "Black Friday," the busiest and most insane shopping day of the year. Every year the story is the same: We see the news reports about the lengthy lines at the major retail stores and all the "great deals" — and there's always inevitably a headline out of somewhere about how a fight broke out at Wal-Mart over $50 DVD players or something. (The $50 DVD player as a Great Deal, which led to a fight/headline a few years ago, is already a humorous anachronism; now $50 DVD players are a dime a dozen.)

I'm here to announce the painfully obvious, which is that Black Friday is colossally absurd. It's one of the most ridiculous examples of media/marketing-manufactured hysteria that I can think of. Retailers should be ashamed of themselves for encouraging this annual mess — far more ashamed, even, than for starting Christmas season on Nov. 1.

I will demonstrate this not with my usual rant, but with an anecdote.

Last year, on Black Friday 2006, Mike and I decided, during one of those crazy whims at work, that after the turkey dinners with our respective families, we would venture out into the cold, late night and do the whole "Black Friday thing" at Best Buy. Mike wanted a 42" plasma TV for $999, and I wanted a $370 notebook computer. They were great deals on items that we were planning to buy anyway. But part of us was also genuinely curious about the experience of this Big Shopping Day, and we wanted to experience the energy of it, for blog fodder if nothing else.

The doors at Best Buy were to open at 5 a.m., so we set our game plan, armed ourselves with a big thermos of coffee, bundled up in our coats and hats and gloves, and figured that if we arrived at 3 a.m., we'd have a good chance at successfully scoring our "doorbusters."

I wish we'd taken a camera for blog fodder, but we didn't think of it. Nevertheless, check this shit out. Above (Fig. 1): An AP photo shows a line at a Best Buy in Ohio, but it looked exactly the same at our local Best Buy and surely at Best Buys everywhere. Below (Fig. 2): The scene inside Best Buy — once we were let in after two hours of waiting — looked pretty much like this insanity, except that no one was smiling.

Yeah, right.

Of course, we knew about the die-hards that line up at these things, but we were still ill-prepared. Showing up two hours before the doors opened was not even close to early enough. At 3 a.m., the line stretched from the door down to the end of the store, back down the outer edge of the strip mall, and then back up the drive of the parking lot. Mike estimated about 300 people in line. This was at 3 a.m.

People had lawn chairs and tents and portable space heaters. It was kind of surreal but not entirely unexpected; after all, just a few weeks earlier, there had been a story in the paper about the idiots who lined up at Best Buy starting at 5 p.m. the day before in order to try to score themselves a new PlayStation 3.

There was also the fair share of Crazy Black Friday Characters. This one guy in front of us kept talking about what he was doing, what he planned to buy, etc. It played as friendly fellow-shopper camaraderie for a while, but an hour later, the guy would still not shut up. After a while, Mike and I would just look at each other, making the sort of eye contact that silently said to each other, "Will this guy ever stop talking?"

And, of course, there was the Dude Who Had To Pee, and was afraid that leaving the line in order to do so (presumably on a tree behind the building), would mean giving up his much-coveted spot at No. 294, meaning he would have to go to the end of the line and become No. 977.

At one point — which was the surreal high/low-point of the whole experience — some poor guy about 30 people behind us in line tipped over in his lawn chair and had a seizure. Everyone stood around sort of perplexed and confused and uncertain what to do, and his friends called an ambulance, which showed up about 30 minutes later. (Good thing it wasn't a heart attack.) All I could do was picture a headline in the next day's paper: "Man dies while awaiting great deals outside Best Buy."

By 4:45 a.m., when we were really starting to get cold, Mike estimated at least 1,000 people in line. It was one of the most absurd things I've ever seen. All these people getting in line at Best Buy ... and for what? Why was I even here?

The Best Buy employees, in an effort to give the wait some semblance of structure and control (lest people get into fistfights while they wait), handed out coupons and tickets (I don't even recall what the tickets were for) and cards with codes for free music downloads.

Finally, a little after 5 a.m., they let us in, which made us happy because we were close enough to the front to actually get inside the store where it was warm. But it only made the insanity look that much more obvious. Instead of a spread-out line of crazy people wanting Great Deals on home electronics, we now had a store packed, jam-packed, with these people in an enclosed space.

Once inside the store, every department became its own line for your specific coveted item. I went to the computer department, which was a mass of people waiting for employees to hand out items on a first-come, first-served basis. But once I was there, about 10 feet back from the feeding frenzy, the line didn't move for at least an hour. Every 20 minutes or so, Mike and I kept in touch via cell phone from across the store, which might as well have been 10 miles given the endless sea of shoppers.

The whole process was infuriating confusion, and the employees in the computer department played the whole thing maddeningly coyly. I asked one of them, "Do you have any of the $370 laptops left or not?" His response: "Maybe. We'll check." And then he very obviously proceeded to NOT check. They utterly refused to give you any real information beyond, "We're checking." And then they'd never check. They didn't even bother to pretend to check. They stood right there in plain sight and offered little help. I stood in that line for at least 90 minutes with no information and no progress. It was grating, to say the least. I mean, if you don't have the item, just tell me and I'll leave so you can help one of the other 1,000 idiots.

Finally, as the sun came up, I'd had plenty enough. It was quite obvious that they weren't going to have any $370 laptops left by the time I might actually reach the front of the line. I went home empty-handed. Mike didn't get his TV, but he at least was given the information he needed ("Sorry, sold out.") and then spent the next 90 minutes in line for the checkouts (buying a movie and video game) while he waited for me to give up.

So I did the crazy Black Friday thing. Never again. Never, ever, ever, never again.

No deal is worth the headaches. Well, maybe a $370 laptop. But in order to actually get it I would've had to be in line at 6 p.m. the previous night.

No, thank you.

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8 comments on this post

    5 P.M.? Try 9 A.M. on T'giving day, according to local news stories! Next year it'll be earlier--maybe even the night BEFORE T'giving--and there WILL be people in line. After all, one has to do everything to be first in line; even Best Buy's ad stated "be the first in line..." I agree: yeah, right! T There will be many more sales before C'mas, many almost as good. People get crazy over these "deals" and it's just not worth it for most of us. Maybe we should all try to get our priorities straight and think: What is this season really about? Even if one isn't into the religious significance, this season of the year should be about enjoying friends and family and less about how much stuff we can buy and how many good deals we can get. Maybe those old-fashioned C'mases where the kids got an orange in their stockings and everything was snowy and magical aren't such a bad thing.

    Working in a supermarket close to Christmas is the most sickening thing, you see the depths that people will stoop to for a couple of quid/dollars off an item. Its shocking, and far too revealing about the human condition

    That's why you find a Best Buy out a way from town. Go drive an hour south of town and stalk it. I live about an hour south of Ft Worth, Tx, and the lines in Burleson, the southernmost city with a Best Buy, never has really tremendous lines. During the whole Playstation 3 craze there were only about three people camping out in front of it. No big mobs like shown on TV. Heck, the Apple Store in Dallas wasn't even mobbed back when the iPhone released.

    You think you have a story? Check this out. So the mall here in Boise, Idaho opened at 1:00 in the morning on the Friday after thanksgiving. They'd advertised that the first 500 people to reach the customer service desk would receive a bag with a prize of some sort inside. Some of the bags were even supposed to contain a Nintendo Wii. So my brother figured why not, and went there to hang out with some friends and maybe win a Wii. 10,000 people showed up to this thing. 10,000 people. There were no lines. No tickets. No semblance of order. Just a giant mob of people hoping to win themselves a video game system. When the doors opened (the crowd broke the doors in at one entrance) this mob stormed the customer service desk where there were only two people working. Two people to deal with a crazed group of 10,000. It was sheer madness. No one was crushed to death, but that must have been luck as much as anything else. To make things crazier apparently there weren't many prizes at all and as far a I know, there were no Wiis to be found. And then the customer service people said they were out of bags, only to find some more a few minutes later. People started to throw things. That my friends is the definition of madness.

    This is the third year I did Black Friday, and the first year I did it in NYC (Long Island, technically.) The previous two years I've gone to the Best Buy in Brighton, MI (in the middle of nowhere, kind of), and there were no lines out the door - just hectic craziness inside. But still, no need to wait in the cold! This year we did have to wait, for 30 minutes (we should up right at 5AM) at Circuit City. Wasn't bad, and there was a great 399$ 34-in LCD HDTV sale. I didn't end up buying that, mostly because I am poor, but they definitely still had some when I got in, and the salespeople were very friendly, and they held stuff for us at the registers.

    Best Buy had some deals I wanted -- THE WIRE 50% off -- so I ... logged online and bought them online! Even got season IV for preorder for the same price. Black Friday is BS. Never done it, never will. Thank goodness a lot of retailers are moving their deals to online availability.

    This all sounds like the Boxing Day sales here in the UK. At 1 minute past midnight on Christmas day, the shops seem to open for the 'sales'. What 'sales' actually mean though is they have 1 item at the advertised 'sale' price, and everything else costs the same as usual. Every year people queue for hours as you describe, and every year they walk out with overpriced goods. (Remember, everything over here costs double what you US guys pay ;) ) Out of interest, what is "This year's hot item"? I remember the news reports on CabbagePatch mania, and then the Buzz Lightyear and Power Rangers. So what is it this christmas that is going to put people in the Grab-Frenzy?

    I agree with Jereny Short: scope out a store away from a major population center. Sure their stock may be more limited than a more populated area, but the crowds are likely to be smaller too. Last year when the PS3 and Wii were released, I camped with a friend for both of them. Much different experience than Black Friday stuff you mention above and what I've read. The line people were much more civilized and cooperative. We were 1st and 2nd in line for the PS3 and the front 10 or so people, whom I had never met before, were all cooperative and we helped each other ward off line jumpers, getting coffee and food for each other, keeping everyone's position if someone needed to use the facilities, etc. Another key is reconnaisance: scope the store layout before the actual camping. Meet the staff. I learned the names of some electronics department employees and the manager. It helps to get permission to camp too. We explained what we were doing and if it was ok. We explained we'd stay out of the way and wouldn't bother the other customers. Management thought we were crazy but allowed us to camp. I'd do it all again. :) You picked a bad store too, Best Buy. I've heard that's the worst place to camp for Black Friday.

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