D.C. Diary: Braving the Black Friday shopping

Black Friday
The mall
Boston
1:25 p.m.

The retail world is abuzz. Frantic Macys’s window designers are having mental breakdowns trying to get their winter wonderlands to posses just the right degree of fluff. Babies being pushed through Bloomingdale’s in strollers are bursting into tears frightened by the glass-eye glares from hundreds of mechanical Santa’s.

There is enough tinsel, pine and red metallic ribbon in each shopping mall across the country to decorate the entire country of Litchenstien. Store managers in every J Crew, Abercrombie, and GAP are giving their employees Vince Lomabardi-esque pep talks in pursuit of the perfect folding of a wool roll neck sweater. All this commotion and excitement can only mean one thing: the arrival of one of the most hectic, frustrating, yet exciting days of the year, Black Friday.

With a title this ominous, one would think the fourth Friday in November commemorates something as serious as a stock market crash or the landing of an asteroid that even Bruce Willis can’t stop. If only shoppers had it that easy. Black Friday is harsher on wallets than the Crash of ’29 and more destructive than the huge tidal waves caused by an Armageddon. Black Friday is the name for the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year.

I don’t know why the swarms of mini-vans driven by moms armed with credit cards, catalogs and short tempers invade the shopping malls of America the way they do on this fatal day. I guess there is something unmistakably American and capitalistic about fighting it out to spend your money first and fastest; but make no mistake, there is nothing festive and cheery about the start of the holiday shopping season. Shopping on Black Friday is like war. As a four-year retail veteran and a shop-a-holic I have seen it from both sides of the trenches, and it is equally as horrific on both sides.

The shopping group is on the offensive, launching attacks on the heavily armed malls of America. The preparation and strategy are endless. It starts at home, days before battle. Maps of parking lots and store directories cover the living room walls as mom and dad chart their course to make sure they are the first in line for the new Tickle-Me Furby or whatever the current toy is. On the day of battle the car is filled with gas, the oil is changed and the tires are checked. Nothing can be left to chance, you don’t want to break down on the way and miss the first few precious hours of Sears Early Bird Sale – that would be tragic.

Parking is where the first casualties occur. At 8 a.m. the radio announces that the lots are 90 percent full even though the mall does not open until 9 a.m. Circling the parking lot chasing after every person with shopping bags seems appealing at first. But after the seventh loop around the upper level of the garage, even those soldiers with the strongest stomachs falter. That’s the hard way. There are short cuts, such as sending in the red-headed stepchild the night before to lie down in the parking spot and reserve it until morning. I’ve seen it happen.

Parking on the other side of the trenches is an equally daunting task. Starting in November, the employees at my mall are instructed to park in the holiday lot, miles away from the closest mall entrance. From there, all the disgruntled mall workers wait in the blistering cold for the never-punctual employee shuttle to cart them off to the battlegrounds. The ride is always life threatening, complete with near fender-benders and pedestrian hit-and-run’s, and for some reason the driver always smells as if he has had a bit too much egg nog. Making it to work in one piece is worth the paycheck in itself.

Then the real fun starts. After you finally manage to shove yourself through the crowded doorway with all of your appendages intact, the endless bombardment begins. Christmas music at obscene decibel levels pierces your ears while pine needles fall from the ceiling and always seem to hit you in the eye. On the ground it is every man for himself as you are bounced around like a ping-pong ball by frantic shoppers and their purchases.

Watch out for baby strollers over your toes, they hurt. When you finally do make it into a store, you have to squeeze past the register line that has already wrapped itself two times around the perimeter of the store and is conveniently blocking the doorway – talk about a fire hazard.

And don’t think that you are ever going to find what you are shopping for. No matter how detailed your list, and no matter how many post-it flags you have sticking out of your J. Crew catalog, it won’t be there. Everyone seems to want the same things for the holidays and they all sell out before Halloween. Even if the store miraculously does have what you want, the displays are so trashed by the time you get there you could never find it anyway.

Careless shoppers are too busy digging through piles of $19.95 summer clearance items in the hopes of finding a cashmere sweater on sale – it has never and will never happen – that they fail to realize they are making the store look like Dorothy’s house after the tornado. And this is where the cycle begins.

The employees are bitter because the store is trashed. Do you know how long it takes to fold a floor to ceiling wall of sweaters with all the argyles matched up? And the shoppers become annoyed because the employees are bitter. The employees become even more enraged because the shoppers are annoyed at their bitterness, and so on. Ahhh, the holidays are here!

Everyone knows all this misery exists, and yet every year hoards of shoppers pour into millions of stores on Black Friday, and millions of employees serve them. In fact, I volunteered to work, and then went shopping afterwards. So why do we do this to ourselves?

Some of us poor misguided souls think if we get to the mall at the crack of dawn and battle all the crowds and dig through the mess we really will find a bargain. But the majority of us do it for the thrill.

It’s our American sense of battle and competition. Once a year we like to know that we fought a dirty war and survived. We do it because we love the capitalistic idea of elbowing our way to material happiness through paying full price for stuff that will be half off in 31 days. It’s exciting, it’s thrilling, its tradition and I wouldn’t miss the war for anything.

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