It was that time of year again! Black Friday has become that highly anticipated, deeply dreaded, beneficial, violent, invigorating, intimidating, fulfilling, decaying, economically necessary, ethically questionable, joyous holiday and/or time of mourning for everyone’s souls. Depending on who’s asking, it’s shopping as a competitive sport, or shopping as the closest American society comes to legalizing The Purge. It’s a great time for rock-bottom bargains, or it’s a time for suckers to get stuck with retailers’ unwanted, defective leftovers. It’s when the Christmas season begins for real, or it’s the ultimate defamation to the name of Christ.
Reporters spend the day prowling for cautionary tales of merchandise hoarding gone wrong, of consumer entitlement run amuck, of retailer manipulation backfiring, of fisticuffs and gunfights, of hair-pulling and cheek-slapping. Somewhere out there, shoppers will be boxing for the privilege to take home a ten-dollar panini maker that the manufacturer discontinued due to exploding wiring, and any number of news crews mean to catch it on tape before some lucky amateurs capture and post it on YouTube first. Everyone tells themselves it’s all part of the Game and complains about the system while continuing to do their part.
Black Friday used to be my thing. In recent years I’ve scaled back my expectations and participation. No more arising at 4 a.m. or earlier like a shopping zombie that thinks “doorbusters” is a synonym for “brains”. No more scheming for the largest tech items that’ll be stocked at a maximum of two per store. No more long shopping lists requiring fifteen or twenty stops’ worth of hunting and gathering.
This year I implemented more modifications to my approach. This is how my Black Friday 2014 turned out:
Thursday, 2042: Finish my Black Friday shopping online for the one major sale item I wanted from Game Stop.
Thursday, 2106: Reject Target’s Black Friday offerings altogether after their online sales tell me I misinterpreted the images in their newspaper ads. Stupid fine print.
Thursday, 2125: Finish my Black Friday shopping online for Best Buy — one major item, plus the new Foo Fighters CD ($7), and X-Men: Days of Future Past ($10 Blu-ray).
Thursday, 2300: Uncharacteristically early bedtime for me. ‘Twas a long Thanksgiving.
Actually Friday, 8:33 a.m.: Arise officially for the day after three false starts. Doorbusters, shmoorbusters. My wife comes home from early grocery shopping at Walmart, where she tells me crowding was not a problem. She also picked up The Wolverine as a $6 Blu-ray.
9:20 a.m.: Leave home at last for a quick breakfast at Panera Bread. Dirty tables, frazzled staff, but the place is less than half full. Customers are still cheery enough to hold doors open for each other. Clearly I’m not the only shopper who slept in.
10:05 a.m.: Primary objective: Barnes & Noble. Busier than usual, suggesting that print is not yet dead among Christmas gifters. Friendly staff, no sign of fatigue or bitterness about life choices. A 30%-off coupon goes nicely toward our next Simpsons calendar, while the annual B&N Criterion Collection half-off sale lures me into picking up Scanners.
10:31 a.m.: JCPenney is the most crowded place I’ll see all day — plenty of shoppers in long lines. One young staffer who’s been assigned to T-shirt refolding duty realizes the Sisyphean nature of this grunt work. Her supervisor agrees and takes her to go find a more worthwhile duty until the customers go away and stop making messy shirt piles. I’m annoyed to discover the $10 blender I spotted in their flyer carried the dreaded proviso “After Rebate”. The blender is rejected.
10:54 a.m.: While waiting in the Penney’s line to make a classified purchase, I check my phone and discover the trailer for The Force Awakens has been released online while I’ve been out ‘n’ about. For a moment I consider dropping what I’m holding in the nearest bin and driving straight home, but I resist temptation. That trailer isn’t going anywhere. It just means I have to avoid the internet altogether until I’ve had the chance to watch it for myself at home and draw my own conclusions. That, in turn, means I have to deal with being bored while waiting in line, just like our primitive ancestors did. I worry about keeping my temper in check, and imagine eighteenth-century Black Fridays are what sparked the invention of dueling.
11:16 a.m.: Quick curiosity stop at Best Buy. Several doorbusters are still on hand, including one smallish tech item I’d had in mind as a gift for a relative. I’m shocked to see it still in stock, though I have to search around two-thirds of the store before I find its designated bin, like a LARPing version of “Where’s Waldo?” I also nab a $6 Blu-Ray of the Robocop reboot, which had better not be terrible.
11:50 a.m.: The comic shop nearest my house is holding numerous sales, including deep discounts on apparel and slight discounts on trade paperbacks. I pick up the most recent Fables collection and grimace at the only two T-shirts they have in my size, both ugly. Perhaps three dozen other guys had been waiting in line for the store to open and bought all the really cool shirts before I arrived. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
12:03 p.m.: I didn’t know Redbox kiosks could break, but I found one out of order next to a Walgreens, so now I know.
12:05 p.m.: Stop for an oil change. Black Friday is a fun day to knock out errands that have absolutely nothing to do with shopping — e.g., haircuts, buying groceries, tending to infirm relatives, etc. I’m second in line and done in less than half an hour.
12:31 p.m.: Use my phone to locate a working Redbox kiosk a block away from the broken one. Apparently around here Redbox is now more ubiquitous than Subway. My son’s in town from college for a few days and I figure this afternoon would be a good time for him to get to see Edge of Tomorrow at last.
12:40 p.m. Pick up Chinese takeout. All three tables are taken, but there’s no line.
1:05 p.m.: Arrive home at last to learn my wife and son had the same reaction to The Force Awakens trailer: meh. Taken aback a bit, I settle in for lunch and Tom Cruise. Two satisfied hours later, I remember to watch the trailer for myself and can’t disagree with them. The decision to stay bored in line is retroactively justified.
11:20 p.m.: Just now realize I forgot to dig into Amazon’s Black Friday’s sales. Too late and too overspent now.
Black Friday 2014 final stats:
Total doorbusters over $10 bought online: 2
Total doorbusters over $10 bought in person: 1
Total items bought as gifts for others and not myself: more than 1, but classified (Everyone wave hi to my wife the loyal reader!)
Total number of people I injured or killed: 0
Total number of people who injured or killed me: 0
Total fistfights, gunfights, swordfights, or slapfights witnessed: 0
Total hours slept: 8½
Total hours strung out on caffeine: <1
American retailers have legislated Black Friday as a 48-hour phenomenon, but few agree on an official starting time. Some businesses opened Thursday afternoon, some in the evening. Some stayed open overnight; some closed for a few hours for the sake of humanity. A few stubborn, old-fashioned businesses with a higher-minded calling stayed closed all day Thursday and refused to open till Friday.
Imagine an Indianapolis 500 where all drivers were required to travel the same five hundred miles of racetrack, but could start anytime they wanted within a given 72-hour range. No schedule, no starter pistol, no green flag, no "Gentleman, start your engines!" Drivers come in whenever they want, clock in, perform their duties, and go home when they're finished. The audience can come or go as they please, too — stay and watch all 72 hours, or pick a few random hours and hope anyone's doing laps at that time. Pick the wrong hours to watch, and you're in for a pretty boring non-event. The whole point of racing has been neutralized.
Between the simultaneous online sales and the Thanksgiving Day money-grubbing early-birds, Black Friday as an event has been diluted to the point of nullification. If you're like our family and unconditionally refuse to step foot inside a storefront on Thanksgiving Day itself, you'll miss the very first calls to arms, the most outrageous sales, and the most vicious combat. By the time the real Friday arrives, the most coveted treasures have been looted and the adventurers who sought them are already home tending to their wounds.
For me, today wasn’t Black Friday. Today was just a Friday with shopping.