Black Friday 2009: One local shopper’s early morning experience

Shoppers wait in line around 3:30 a.m., planning on gettng into Best Buy in the Alcoa Exchange shopping Center on Black Friday morning, Nov. 27. (Photo by Lana Clifton)By LANA CLIFTON

The Old Navy store in the Alcoa Exchange shopping center was scheduled to open at 3 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 27, traditionally known as Black Friday. Shoppers were lined up well before that, hoping to get into the store early enough to get the bargains before they were all gone. Wrapped in blankets or shivering in jackets or t-shirts, bargain hunters did not allow temperatures in the 30’s to deter them.[more]

Best Buy, Target and Kohls had also advertised early opening times and “doorbuster” deals. Best Buy was not scheduled to open until 5, yet there were already people, some in lawn chairs, in line by 2:15. By 3 a.m., the line for Best Buy already wrapped part way down the side of Petco. Best Buy employees had areas sectioned off to keep order, and officers from the Bryant Police as well as the Sheriff’s Department were on hand in the shopping center to keep the peace.

Kohl’s was scheduled to open at 4 a.m. Target was scheduled to open at 5 a.m., but shoppers were already in line at both stores before 3.

Down the road at the Wal-Mart in Bryant, shoppers were allowed into the store, but store employees would not let them take doorbuster items off of pallets and racks until 5 a.m. By 5, shoppers crowded around the item at the top of their wish list and waited for the word. As soon as they were allowed, the race was on to grab all the items on their list and make it to the checkout lanes where a long wait to pay and leave the store awaited them.

For some of the most popular items in the sale ad, Wal-Mart gave out tickets to the first ones to stand waiting for the items. If the tickets were all gone, no one else would get that item that day. Other items were first come, first serve. As shoppers grabbed products and tried to move on to the next thing or to check out, they were faced with the challenge of navigating through crowds of people doing the same thing.

Lines at the front checkouts stretched back across the main aisle past racks of merchandise. Attitudes of most people seemed good if not calm. They appeared to know what to expect before they came.

Brandy Thomas of Salem noticed a change in behavior of fellow shoppers this year.

“People didn’t seem as angry this year. They weren’t pushing and shoving,” she commented. One family had different family members stationed throughout the store. They had a plan and kept in communication by cell phone as they waited by the items they wanted most. They had been there since 2 a.m.

How do I know all of this? I was there. I was at Old Navy at 2:15 waiting in line and hoping to get an advertised video game for free. I stood next to people of all ages and backgrounds bundled in blankets, coats and scarves or freezing because they forgot to bring a jacket. They chatted about Thanksgiving dinner, what they did for a living and what they were waiting to buy. A group of strangers, we learned a lot about each other during those 45 minutes. One thing we learned, we were all trying to get what we wanted for the lowest price we could, and we were willing to stand in the cold and dark for a chance to get it.

I watched as the parking lot filled up, and the line at Best Buy began to wrap around Petco. I marveled at the hopeful who were already claiming their space outside of Target. I was amazed that, even though I arrived at 2:15, I was probably about 150th in line at Old Navy. Time seemed to slow as 3 a.m. grew near. We were all tired of waiting.

As the Old Navy employee finally unlocked the door. I heard a shout of anger explode from the front of the line. People were coming up from the parking lot and walking right in, in front of those of us who had been freezing for almost an hour or more. We all rushed into the store. I had two goals. Grab two pairs of jeans and get to the front so I could get one of the advertised video games for free. I was at the checkout counter in less than five minutes. “How do I get the video game?” I asked. “Do you have a wristband?” The clerk inquired. She went on to explain that they had given wristbands to a certain number of people in line. Only those with a wristband could get the game for free.

“How many did you give out?” I asked.

I looked at her in astonishment as she answered, “Twenty-six.”

Twenty-six? There must have been well over 200 people in line. None of those in line around me knew anything about wristbands. I felt betrayed and annoyed, but I bought the jeans anyway and left the store. The ad had said limited quantities, but 26? I won’t fall for that again.

My next stop was Wal-Mart, but I didn’t want to go at 3:15, so I went home for a break and grabbed my camera while I was there.

“People who have never shopped on Black Friday will not believe this,” I thought.

After taking a few pictures in the still pre-dawn morning, I unfroze my fingers in the car, and then headed to Wal-Mart. When I first arrived, it was fairly calm compared to what I had just experienced. People meandered through the store looking for pallets containing the items on their list. I saw one item on mine and made the mistake of putting it in my buggy. An employee corrected me politely and asked me to put it back. I realized this was only the calm before the storm. There was still an hour and a half to go, but I knew I needed to find the item at the top of my list and stand by it, or I would probably be out of luck.

I found the top two items for which I was looking in the same area and strategically placed myself where I could grab both in five seconds or less. I had to stage my buggy in an aisle about 10 feet away. There was not going to be room for it beside me.

Wearing a Wal-Mart blue shirt and standing on a pallet where he could survey all merchandise and shoppers on the aisle, the employee in charge of watching the area tried to keep control. He kept people from picking up sale merchandise and tried to instruct people on what direction they were supposed to go after grabbing their first item. He was kind of like a disrespected school teacher, and we were like unruly kids, making plans and talking about his lack of real power behind his back.

When you stand next to people for over an hour with nothing to do but keep your hand on the top of a printer box, you get to know them. I didn’t do much talking, but I can tell you that the woman behind me had six kids, the woman beside me had four and the man across the pallet from me was kind. I know he was, because he secretly pushed two digital picture frames across the pallet for me and the woman behind me so we wouldn’t have to jump over the pallet to get them when the time came.

Oh, the “teacher” said we would have to go around instead of reaching across, but we were plotting anyway. Like prisoners with nothing to do but think of escape, we had plenty of time and nothing to do but come up with a plan. I’m not usually a rebellious person, but when it comes to bargains, I’ll do anything but steal.

One person beside me said, “It’s their own fault. They advertise these bargains and then only have a few of everything. What do they expect people to do?”

Excuse me for not recording this person’s name. I was intent on getting that printer.

Again, time seemed to slow. The woman beside me kept looking at her watch and communicating with her kids, and the time seemed to never change. Then, it was finally time.

The man in blue said, rather nonchalantly, “Go ahead and start.”

I grabbed one picture frame and handed it to the woman behind me, tucked the other under my arm, grabbed my printer. There was a whoosh at the same time, as everyone began moving forward to grab merchandise. I felt a push from behind and grunted, but I had my stuff, and it was time to get out of the way.

The rest of my time shopping is a little bit of a blur. I don’t know if it was because I had not been to bed since early Thanksgiving morning, or because of the crowds, but I don’t remember much except trying to navigate around aisles, stacks of merchandise, empty pallets and people pushing buggies trying to make it somewhere.

At one point, I imagined if someone had taken the top off of Wal-Mart and viewed us from the sky, we would have resembled mice in a crazy maze. The cheese? Products at low prices.

After waiting in line over an hour to check out, you would think I was finished, but I headed to Target. The mad rush was over there and their two-day sale allowed for a somewhat less frenzied crowd, but a lot of the sale items were gone. Empty end-caps and lonely ad signs with no merchandise behind them spoke of the madness I had probably missed at 5 a.m.

I made a couple of other small purchases at some other shops, and then went home to see my family before collapsing into bed. It was only 10 a.m., but I had put in almost eight hours of bargain shopping.

Right now, I’m wondering if I will do it next year. When the ads come out and the adrenaline starts pumping, though, I will probably be ready to do it again.

Brandy Thomas was at Wal-Mart about 4:20 a.m. She was not even looking for anything in particular when she arrived, but she said she left with quite a bit. She said the reason she was there was simple, it comes down to tradition.

“It’s Black Friday, and that’s what you’re supposed to do. Who cares if you don’t get sleep and you wait an hour to check out? That’s just part of it,” she explained.

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