What drives grown-ups temporarily insane?
The incredible tales of American bargain hunters
As another “Black Friday” is upon good old USA after Thursday’s Thanksgiving, I decided I should share an old essay from my weekly essay days almost nine years ago with new readers, my blog’s visitors. TOLA, Early a.m. Black Friday, 2015.
When this column presented the first in the ‘bargain hunting’ series over a year ago, little did I know that it was a trend that was here – rather, there – to stay. This season of good cheer seems to bring even more madness – U.S. retailers would want me locked up! Traditionally, Christmas ambience did not get into stores till the day after Thanksgiving, i.e. the last weekend in November but that was a long time ago – say, my college days. These days, Halloween decorations mingle with Christmas decors as early as October but who can blame retailers trying to get an early start to the most lucrative season of the year. Here is an excerpt from that essay a year ago:
Looking for bargains often lead grown men and women to extreme lengths and the cases of two that I know stand as classic studies in what mob mentality coupled with bargain hunting can lead to. Through media machinations almost ten years ago, there was the case of a previously-slow selling fuzzy toy, ‘Tickle me Elmo’, an imitation of a Sesame Street muppet which suddenly became the must-have toy of Christmas 1996. The toy was cropping up for sale in classifieds across the USA for as much as – wait for this – two thousand dollars. Worried moms kept vigils at stores to await the arrivals of trucks carrying those red toys in the wee hours of the morning. Desperate women who broke into fist fights over who would get lucky to pick these toys off the shelf were shown on television even as TYCO, America’s fourth largest toy manufacturer, laughed all the way to the bank.
I was in England when a new IKEA Store to be opened this past summer saw a big stampede by people who had queued since before midnight. The opening had to be postponed because many people were injured. What people do in the name of bargain hunting! …
The story of The Great Stampedes of Xmas 1996 Across the U.S.A. for ‘Tickle Me Elmo’ pales in comparison with The Madness in Richmond One Summer Day in 2005 that saw a female of the human specie p__ in her clothes rather than lose her position on a queue!
In a country that loves short descriptions, the last Friday in November, that is, the day after Thanksgiving, has come to be known as “black Friday”, that is the day in which retailers generally move to making profits as opposed to the “red” of losses. From coast to coast, retailers, including the fabled sidewalk vendors of Washington, D.C., but especially those of New York, braze for the deluge of buyers.
Personally, I used to be what can best be described as a mall and shop crawler but my shopping habits have metamorphosed greatly over the years. There are family members who believe I should shop for people for a living: household items, expensive jewelry (which I do not own), costume jewelry (which I own by the tons), clothing, etcetera. Over two decades ago, I graduated to shopping in New York, sometimes in companies of girl friends which made shopping very pleasurable. We would comb 34th & 42nd Streets and the designer ateliers of 7th Avenue, combining our lists for incredible bargains. In 2004, that stopped and looking back now, it seemed to have coincided with lost appetite – and strength – to walk for hours without feeling it! I did not realize it then, but simply moved on to shopping the internet.
What bliss! No barriers of time and space; just endless clicking of the mouse and daily trudging of the UPS delivery men bringing stuff in and coming by to pick up those I do not like for returns. And – more time for real holidays. I have not looked back since because now, more than 95 percent of my shopping is done on line.
Well, that did not stop me from getting caught in the Black Friday frenzy of ’06. While I do own a computer set-up that allows for more than 99 percent of my present need, I was like those who ask for public church prayers for “befitting cars”! A laptop was what I believed I needed and when an ad in the Post caught my eyes on Thanksgiving Day for ten Hewlett Packard at each Best Buy store for $379.00, I thought the time was right. When I read that prospective buyers would be given numbers from 4 00 a.m. – yeah, four in the morning, I still was not fazed. After all, my motor is set for almost 24-hour days. Fuelled by zillions of cups of tea and late night shows, I trudged through the night, almost feeling like Washington, D.C. (D.C.) of my college days except that I was alone.
Over three decades earlier, my husband and I would trudge the streets of Georgetown on Saturday nights till the wee hours of the morning – not to shop but to night-crawl – pick up the Sunday Post and then feast on it once we returned home.
My accomplice this time was my daughter whom I woke up at 3.00 a.m. We had decided the previous night that if the line was long, we would skip. Well, we left home at 3.20 a.m. and as we approached the nearest shopping center that has a Best Buy ten minutes later, the sight that greeted us was unbelievable. All the same, we drove to the store and the line was so long that it wrapped around the store. There must have been well over two hundred people ahead of us. We drove round the store and drove right back home.
There were hardier souls in every part of the country and here are some stories from the shopping war fronts of Black Friday 2006, interesting enough to share with readers:
It was reported that U.S. retail sales on that first shopping day of this season rose 6 percent to – wait for this – $8.96 billion; that is almost nine billion dollars for one day! The stores, especially the big retailers like Wal-Mart, etcetera, pulled in all the stops to attract customers. Target, the 2nd biggest U.S. retailer after Wal-Mart, hired a magician to escape from shackles while he was held to a spinning gyroscope five stories above that New York landmark, Times Square, to promote a two-day sale that started on Black Friday!
Meanwhile, Thanksgiving Day, which had almost always been observed like Sundays, saw shops openings – some during the day and some by midnight. One even had a big sale from 9 p.m. – I think it was CompUSA – but I decided to skip knowing people would form lines even before Thanksgiving dinners late afternoon.
Two friends from the D.C. area – Tracey Oskey and Jodi Weier – had their shopping story as one of those told in the Post. “Gal pals” Tracey and Jodi took advantage of a resort near a huge outlet mall, the Leesburg Outlets in suburban Virginia, they were going that had a “shop-and-stay package”. The outlets would open at 9 p.m. Friday and the friends “settled in with a bottle of Merlot from the mini-bar [in their room] and Grey’s Anatomy on television.” Well, what a way to start an evening of giving the credit card perhaps its biggest workout of the year – a California red (wine) and the hottest series on night-time television!
Lansdowne Resort, where the friends stayed, threw in hot tea, coffee and a booklet of coupons to make their stay and shopping even more attractive. The hotel also threw in a shuttle to take shoppers right to the doors of the mall – very attractive because of the distance where shoppers often had to pack from the gate on such occasions apart from the dread of bumper-to-bumper traffic – yes, even at those hours of night.
Bianca Olivas and her sister of Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of D.C., would be the envy of many Nigerian women. The sisters, who started shopping on Friday at 5.00 a.m. told a Post reporter: We have to go to more stores but our car is already full of packages. We’ll have to take home some and then come back.” The sisters had spent fifteen hundred dollars – $1500. No, they cannot be said to be rich because that kind of shopping tab between two people is what two Nigerian senior teachers, middle-level employees at banks, etcetera, should be able to afford if ours was an economy structured like that of the United States.
And in the Big Apple, the Mecca of street vending, the Post reports that “about 12,000 vendors work in New York, with or without licenses”; only “853 general-vending licenses and 3,000 food-vending licenses, not counting veterans who have special rights to operate stands” exist. Try imagining the number of illegals but New York is always game to all, and many tourists to the city always enjoy participating in this age-old city ritual: buying bangles from Senegalese; buying and eating succulent snacks right in front of vendors, etcetera. It is part of the soul of the city, part of what “makes the heart beat faster” in the city, to borrow words from an old NY advertisement. The city will never scrap street vending even though authorities will struggle to always regulate it.
This essay first appeared in [Nigeria’s] The Nation on Sunday, January 7, 2007.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 2015. 5:20 a.m. [GMT]