No one would deny that Black Friday, on a base level, has always been about crass consumerism. Even in more mild-mannered times when the day after Thanksgiving was simply the starter pistol that signaled the first day for many people to initiate Christmas season protocols, phase one was almost always, “Commence gift-shopping.” Within that oft-derided framework, though, for the past several years I managed to develop myself a fun routine in which I found fun and purpose in my own little ways.
My ritual would begin each Thanksgiving evening, after all relatives were finished with my presence for the day. For just this one special day out of the year, I would spend several hours reading a newspaper. My wife and I would open up the day’s issue of the Indianapolis Star, toss the articles to one side for later skimming, and have several hundred pages of ads lying before us. I would assess our technological and living situation; brainstorm a list of things that could use replacing, upgrading, or first-time owning; then study all the ads laboriously like Rupert Giles researching an obscure monster. I created a notebook index of my most viable store options — potential deals for the items on our want list, both the most impressive sales and the next-best alternatives in case I was beaten to the punch by too many other, wilier shoppers. I would assemble a strict chronological itinerary visit in descending order of store opening times. In my own special way, I prepared for war.
Part of the fun was arising in the middle of the night after insufficient sleep and arriving at stores before they opened. In much the same way that my people have historically waited hours in lengthy lines for major autographs, convention activities, or certain blockbuster movie openings, so do the normal folk cheerfully gather for the communal experience of waiting in lines before the magic of overspending begins. It’s just you and hundreds of strangers, hanging out in the middle of the night in a public place without the police hassling you or questioning your motives. In case of solitude or boredom, I also brought a paperback to read.
We counted down the final minutes until the doors unlocked. We grumbled when our watches said it was three minutes after. Sooner or later the fearful manager on duty would summon up the nerve to get it over with and unleash us, the many-headed Kraken, upon their poor employees, who probably weren’t getting any readier or more heavily armed. Regardless, with a flick of the tumblers, everyone was off and running, scrambling to hunt down all the sale items in the flyers that the store severely underordered and hid in the least sensible locations. I’ve found discounted DVDs on display near women’s clothes, found TVs in a bakery area, stumbled over clerks guarding laptops in the produce section, and thwarted one office-supply store’s bait-and-switch tactics by bypassing the similar but full-price ringers at the front of the store and questing for the actual Black Friday sale items at the rear of the store. On this special day of profitable chaos, corporate-HQ rules about store layout were temporarily suspended.
The thrill of the hunt carried me along, around my nemeses and nearer to my quarry. Sometimes I lost; occasionally I won and actually found the exact items I sought. Once my prizes were in hand, next came the least enjoyable part of the day: standing in another line, knowing that you’ve acquired your objectives, but are still trapped until it was your turn to pay. This part could a few minutes at stores where no one else ever starts (e.g., Office Depot), or a few hours (any given Kohl’s), or even the rest of your natural life (Toys R Us). This, again, is where the paperback came in handy to while away the time. (Handy tip, if you follow my lead: make sure your paperback is visibly used, beaten and even yellowed. You don’t want the sleepy, undiscerning clerk to try charging you for something you brought with you.)
After paying and fleeing, I began the process anew with the next store on my list. If enough stores opened at diverse times, I could theoretically stand in several pre-opening lines in a single Friday. That’s a lot of hanging out and/or reading to accomplish. After the first few hours, I took a break because by then I was running on fumes and dying for breakfast. After that, more of the same but with all remaining stores already fully open. Before noon all the major items on the list would be crossed off, either because of success or frustration, and I would declare quitting time. Any remaining items on the list were forfeited as I returned home, emptied the car, and went back to bed for a few hours.
At times it could be frustrating, excruciating, infuriating, enervating, or meaningless. At other times, though, I kept in mind that much of what we bought on Black Friday were items we couldn’t normally afford for sales prices at any other times of the year. There was also something about the people-watching and crowd-spectacle aspects of it that could entertain and engage on a benign social level. For extra credit, I also liked to find those brief opportune moments when I could do nice things for other people — hold doors, move out of their way, retrieve dropped items, give directions — during a day where manners and civility can be in short supply, especially as the morning grows long and shopping mania gives way to exhausted tempers. And sometimes I just like to enjoy some hustle-‘n’-bustle, as long as I avoid the life-threatening stampedes and the occasional shouting matches.
This year, though, with Black Friday only a week away as of this writing…my enthusiasm is missing. I blame it on a number of factors that have accumulated and irked me more and more over time.
The most obvious, most talked-about issue this year in my circles, is how stores have responded to insatiable consumer demand by pushing their opening times back all the way into Thanksgiving Day itself. This violates my personal rule about strict demarcation between holidays. We don’t put up turkey decorations in October; we don’t put up our Christmas tree in mid-November; and we don’t endorse Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving Day because Thanksgiving Day is not Black Friday. If employees are needy or mercenary enough to be willing to work that day, that’s their call to make. If other shoppers support them in their endeavors, that’s their privilege. But I don’t start Black Friday until Black Friday, and also I’m now no longer interested in staying up all night for any reason whatsoever, mostly because of oldness. Unless medical emergency is involved, rising at — or staying up through — anywhere near the 3 a.m. range is emphatically impossible for me.
I’ve also found over time that some of the “doorbuster” deals of which we availed ourselves sometimes turned out to be the jalopies and lemons of their kind. I’m thinking of the obsolete DVD recorder that came with the innumerable limitations of a previous decade’s technology. The other DVD recorder that was even smaller and dysfunctional than that. The wireless headphones that transmitted 90% white noise to 10% music, assuming the receiver could be convinced to transmit any given day. The no-stick pans with easy-scrape-off lining. The bargain-basement clothes with patent-pending instant shrink-in-the-wash action. Some of those items are clearance-priced for a reason.
Also damaging to my fandom of Black Friday: Internet competition. If you’re using a computer to read this, you should be well aware of this one. Or have you not been introduced to everyone’s new best friend Amazon? Should I add that we have more bills than usual this year? And I’ve not picked the best time to cut down on my overtime, either.
Most worthy of mentioning: we’re at a point now where we don’t truly need most of what’s being offered, and I’m kind of tired of convincing myself that I want much of it.
By this time in November, I’m normally chattering away about the big day — all the places I’ll go, all the better things I might find, all the exploring I’ll do, all the adventures that await me. This year, not so much. I imagine I’ll head out to at least a few locations for a token observance. There’s still the allure of the crowd, the chance to do a nice thing or two here and there, and my chronic weakness for deeply discounted movies and TV boxed sets. My local comic shop is planning a bigger sale than usual, so there’s that.
Even setting aside most of the minor issues, though, it just won’t be the same without the level playing field that those firmly defined Black Friday morning opening times created. By the time I convince myself to leave the house this year, other folks will have been up and about for hours, all overloaded on sugar, caffeine, and killer energy products. For me, attending such a party as a left-behind latecomer will be a lot less fun.