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December 3, 2008

Bleak Friday

Frenzied bargain hunters seek their holiday shopping fix

On this cold, pre-dawn morning, I am right where I’m supposed to be: waiting in line at the Okolona Circuit City along with more than 100 people in dire need of their latest, price-slashed fix of digital crack cocaine; a fix that, if the media coverage of Black Friday offers any indication, could drive these people to barbaric acts of depravity to obtain. As a defense mechanism, I pretend to look at my watch. This prevents any potentially fatal eye contact, which I hear sparks anger in them, particularly at this hour.

It’s only 6:15 a.m. and this is my second shopping stop of the morning. The store was originally scheduled to open at 5 a.m., but because of some unknown delay, the doors still are closed. I get the feeling that not many people have been hanging out here as long as those who answered a higher calling and entrenched themselves at the nearby Best Buy, which by 4:50 a.m. was approaching soccer-hooligan levels, with shoppers pouring out of their cars, illuminated by undulating pockets of stadium lighting, and spread across the sprawling quilt of parking lots that define the topography of the Jefferson Mall area.

In the wake of this delay at Circuit City, the crowd has taken on a mood of frosty, nervous exhaustion. Those at the front camped out hours in advance, and many more have been elsewhere shopping this morning. We all wait, under the sickly fluorescent lighting, our arms crossed, breath hot and shooting out in quick dragon puffs.

On a day typified by a seemingly endless series of waiting in line, engaging in road rage, and in some parts of the country, the occasional homicide, for my fellow line-goers, simply being here qualifies as the consumer equivalent of lukewarm leftovers. As the nation’s retail sector is predicting a dismal fourth quarter, the chatter in the crowd outside the flailing electronics chain centers on the nature of the deals to be found inside this dying relic of the pre “big-box” era. Roughly two weeks ago, Circuit City — having failed to recoup any market share from its larger competitors — announced it was cutting its staff nationwide by 17 percent, and would pull the plug on 155 stores, including this location. Circuit City’s demise is but one example of a trend buckling all areas of retail in these Recessionary States of America.

Not long after I arrive, a guy walks up and asks when the store is scheduled to open. I tell him I heard the opening has been pushed back to 7 o’ clock.

“Wow,” he says, laughing nervously. “That’s way too long.”

The man lingers for half a moment, looks over his glossy broadsheet advertising supplement, and briskly walks away, muttering to himself in a high-pitched voice, all of which insinuates the ill effects on the nerves of ingesting too many five-hour energy drinks and shot-gunning a McCafe[1].

As dozens more people start to line up behind me, some wonder aloud whether the deals will be worth it. I can hear Black Friday strategies being aired and, due to their sheer complexity, could easily substitute J.C. Penney, Sears, and Wal-Mart for Dunkirk, Bastogne and Berlin, respectively.

The line has yet to spill out of the allocated parking area into the nearby sidewalk-free road, where automobiles frequently speed past, lions of the concrete Serengeti, reminding pedestrians of their lowly caste within the hierarchy of Mall Land. 

Fortunately, no one’s died yet.
 

Nor was anyone killed earlier this morning when the plexi-glass gates of Best Buy whooshed open at 5 a.m. on the dot; everyone rushed inside like frenzied dyslexic rats toward a sinking ship, bum-rushing the digital cameras, hunting for maniacally priced laptops and other essentials amid a network of inexhaustible and strategically placed blue-shirted employees communicating over hands-free headsets, keeping the aisles congestion-free, organizing the checkout lane flowing along the elaborate maze of portable nylon ropes, whose serpentine layout reminds one of an amusement park. You aren’t just shopping here. You are being handled.

Based upon the media’s depiction of this phenomenon, I should’ve already suffered a severed limb, cardiac arrest or, at the very least, a mild concussion. Yet the line outside Best Buy, for all of its weird intensity, quickly burned itself out once the faithful were let loose inside. Within the hour, most shoppers were already wheeling their massive flat-screen televisions and Dolby 5.1 surround sound systems via strained shopping carts to their SUVs, whereupon these products will embark on a journey to their new homes. There, the items will await an application of wrapping paper and undergo a period of yuletide gestation beneath a gigantic plastic Christmas tree, nestled with utmost care among their China-manufactured brethren.

By now, that mad rush when energy levels were high, and when the crowd was twice as large and duly rampant with jumpy, uneasy exuberance, seems like days ago. Standing before the sickly neon glow of giant letters that spell Circuit City, the building’s mange-like paint job is clearly visible. Here, the effects of Red Bull, nicotine, McCafes and the purchasing-induced dopamine rush have begun to lose their potency, and the residue is one of quiet resolve that echoes an impending burnout. The collective body language conveys equal parts discomfort and hostility: lots of glares, muted conversation, yawns, and the feeling that nobody is here fishing for any Christmas miracles.

After about 20 minutes, the line has more than doubled in size. Behind me, a goateed young man wearing a Kevlar biker jacket tells his friends about the time when he was 5 years old and went shopping with his mom on Black Friday and “got stepped on” during the ritual stampede. He laughs. The goateed-man tells another story, this time about when he was 13 and got drunk on his parents’ liquor, only to be discovered by his mother later that afternoon when she returned from marathon Black Friday shopping. She was too exhausted to do anything about it. He laughs again, then lights a cigarette.

I check my watch.
 

In front of us a small Hispanic boy bounces around the dark pavement playing an imaginary game with invisible players, oblivious to the Lovecraftian horrors lurking in the spaces between ordinary things, horrors which, at any moment, threaten to emerge from Aisle 13, from that choice parking space next to the handicapped spots, from a Hannah Montana Official DVD Board Game, and kill us where we stand — shuffling our feet one moment, dead (and newsworthy) the next.

I check my watch again.
 

Regarding horrors: Wal-Mart Supercenter employees in Nassau County, New York, weren’t prepared for what Nassau Detective Lt. Michael Fleming dubbed “utter chaos” when a temporary custodial worker, 34-year-old Jdimytai “Jimbo” Damour, was trampled to death by rabid customers who burst through the doors five minutes before opening time. From the Associated Press:

 

… One woman said shoppers were acting like “savages.” Other witnesses say even as the man lay on the ground, shoppers streamed into the store, stepping over him. Police say dozens of store employees who tried to help the man were also trampled by the crowd, which reportedly numbered in the thousands. At least four other people were hurt, including a woman who is eight months pregnant. Police say she and her baby are said to be OK.

 

Chaos. Savages. Shopper-on-fetus violence. These words and images come from a moment in a nation living in an age of virtual post-scarcity, where coveted and expensive items like PlayStation 3s, flat-screens and the world’s thinnest laptops have been priced for the masses en masse. Such a drastic deflation in the worth of these newfound “essential items,” when combined with the furor of Black Friday’s marketing blitzkrieg, produce in a certain segment of the population something akin to the trance states of the Norse berserker. In the same fashion as some individuals who experience epileptic seizures while watching “Pokemon,” there are those among us in the population at large whose otherwise rational outward appearance dissolves like an antacid when a certain mixture of economic strain, media saturation and perceived material scarcity combine to reveal the ruthless killing machine that will stop at nothing until it has purchased the entire box-set of “Who’s The Boss?” at 45 percent off.

Though the murder of Damour at the feet of zombie bargain-seekers is no doubt as tragic as it is senseless, it is the exception, not the rule, to Black Friday[2]. Incidents like these represent outliers, freak occurrences, and they don’t usually herald a statistically significant warning to the masses to prevent them from exercising their credit cards. Speculating for a moment that the opposite were true, and the rule dictated that 99 percent of Black Friday shoppers never made it back (the exception then being the few who lived through the ordeal), people would likely refrain from waiting an hour or more outside Old Navy on Black Friday because to do so would carry with it a certainty of, say, being strangled with a $20 leather jacket, which would (hopefully) outweigh the perceived benefits of potentially capitalizing on the jacket’s ultra-low price. The real chance of death-by-shopping is probably something like less than 1 percent, and although it’s still a chance, Americans are nothing if not risk-takers: Vehicular fatalities accounted for 42,642 deaths in 2007; tobacco-related deaths claim one out of every five deaths in the United States. Willfully engaging with the instruments of one’s own possible death is nothing new to us. We do it every day.

So what about the supposed benefits? Is a cheap TV worth a human being getting crushed to death? Obviously not … right? The answer isn’t so clear when one considers the unfortunate case of Damour, who was killed not by one but by hundreds of perfect strangers, many of whom have children and families and friends whom they love and care for, yet not one of whom even bothered to notice that with each step taken, Damour was closer to death. As he laid dying, onlookers continued to shop. Of the infinite ways one can die in America, this is a preventable form of death we can surely do without.

But commerce isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. Though it often receives a fair amount of (sometimes rightful) bashing, the fact remains that, since the beginning of civilization, commercial activity has been a defining element of our everyday landscape. Trajan’s Market in Rome offers a stunning example of the architectural beauty and respect for human-scale building that economic activity can provide. A local farmers market breaks many of the barriers between food and the person who eats it. Commerce, simply put, is why we managed to thrive as a species.

Some — like the late urbanist Jane Jacobs — posit that cities (and thusly, civilization) arose directly from the exchange of rare and hard-to-get goods between hunting tribes that in turn created permanent settlements for the express purpose of storing wares, and to better coordinate the multiplying trade routes that brought in goods. This also led to the creation of specialized jobs, a process that ultimately led to the development of the iPhone. From this perspective, it can be argued that society is fundamentally rooted in market principles.

The vast gulf that has arisen between a second century caravan trader and Amazon.com has yielded strange anomalies. So how does that original, noble impulse become twisted into a life-crushing force? If Black Friday didn’t exist, would we then have to invent it anyway?

 

Often erroneously referred to as the time of the year when retailers go from being in the red to being in the black, the first recorded use of the term Black Friday appeared in 1966 as an epithet used by the Philadelphia police department to describe the traffic-induced headache caused by the swarms of shoppers that flooded downtown the day after Thanksgiving. The term also was intended to conjure up images of the pain and stress felt by the stock market crash of 1929, known as “Black Tuesday.”

For nearly 50 years, Black Friday’s increasingly centralized position within the underlying framework of American holiday retail activity has expanded to the point of near-permanence, earning it a spot among the season’s mythical pantheon of deities (e.g. Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Jesus, etc.) and their corresponding rituals (e.g. procurement of fir tree to put stuff under, painstakingly hung stockings to put stuff in, “It’s A Wonderful Life” marathons, etc.). As the unofficial holiday has grown in viability — and, as a result, the retail sector’s dependence upon it — so has the need for “spin-off” bargain-centered quasi-holidays: Cyber Monday, wherein retailers bombard the Internet with online-only uber-deals, and Mobile Tuesday, wherein marketers and mobile-phone companies plan on possessing your BlackBerry via an occult Kabalistic ritual and the latest in wireless data stream technology, turning the plastic fucker into an electronic golem of terrifying deal-osity.

In this recessionary landscape, advertising gimmicks like Cyber Monday, Mobile Tuesday, TGI Friday’s, et al., are little more than unabashed attempts to wring every last drop of discretionary income from the once-reliable American consumer base, which has until recently accounted for 72 percent of our overall economy. But purchasing power is declining, and unemployment is rising. This year, retailers are stretching the canopy of Black Friday as far as possible to allow profits to offset massive losses incurred by too-low deals. The resulting dilemma requires companies to lure as many shoppers as possible into their stores, yet somehow make a profit from products buoyed by a 21 percent increase in deals over last year.

Prior to Black Friday, many in the media were speculating that the worsening economy would spell doom for the nation’s retailers, and that the annual holiday shopping frenzy might be a little gray this year. But as Paul Coomes, a professor of economics at the University of Louisville, points out, “each recession is different.”

“After 9/11, there was no crash in housing or a credit freeze up like there is now,” he says. “Travel, tourism and the convention business were hit hard, especially in New York, which contributed to that recession.” That being said, he adds that people will still “go out and spend money that they don’t have.”

One of the ways retailers might expect to see a healthy shopping season, according to Coomes, has to do with the survivors of the Wall Street meltdown: community banks and local credit unions.

“I was with some bankers in Frankfort recently,” he says, “and they’ve got plenty of money, they’re giving out loans. Most local banks rely on local deposits and didn’t get into the exotic subprimes.” Therefore, a large number of would-be spenders who are only marginally qualified for the loans and credit cards they need to fuel their holiday largesse can still obtain them — just not from Citibank. 

This outlook echoes much of what’s been floating around out there — that weakened consumer confidence, uncertainty about the future and high unemployment will result in a softening of retail sales this winter. But even in the face of economic crisis, Americans still have found a way (like, say, via high-interest credit cards) to purchase goods this holiday season.

When I ask Coomes, in so many words, about whether the boom-and-bust cycle of the unfettered, imploded free market works, and whether an economy based primarily on the number of homes constructed per year and how much people are spending on Hello Kitty tchotchke actually works, the professor smiles and shakes his head.

“Absolutely garbage. People are spoiled rotten,” he says. “This isn’t bad. The housing market is already responding. We’re building half as many homes now. The rate at which so-called ‘innovative’ financial instruments emerged outstripped the ability of regulators to develop safeguards. We will learn how to manage these exotic financial instruments.”

Cautionary optimism notwithstanding, I ask Coomes if he has ever shopped on Black Friday. “Hell no,” he laughs, adding that he and his family no longer really buy one another gifts on Christmas. “Everybody’s got everything already. What’s the point?”

 

It’s 7 a.m. inside Circuit City and no one has died yet. We’re quickly rushed inside by the promises of warmth and (what else) deals. Merchandise is scattered throughout the store, much of it resting in boxes stacked high upon the floor. To my immediate left, two dozen boxes of “Guitar Hero III” are jammed into a recessed area that at one point might’ve housed car stereo equipment or metal detectors. Walls that once sported arrays of gadgets are now bare. The frosty quiet of just a few moments ago has risen in decibel level as customers ask questions, clerks give answers, and the sounds of commerce fill the air. The plasma screens are juiced up. Display cell phones are fondled. Everything’s as it should be.

Then an announcement blasts over the store’s P.A. system:

“Attention: The Black Friday deals listed in the advertisement will not be honored at this location!!! Attention: The Black Friday deals listed …”

The store grows quiet. This is it: There will be riots. Someone is finally going to die.

Only this isn’t it. No one riots, and no one dies. A collective groan passes through the crowd, and after it ceases, many of our flock begin to break off in exodus for the door, still freshly unlocked. I leave at the exit alongside a visibly pissed-off middle-aged couple. I walk with them a bit.

“This is a bunch of bullshit,” the husband tells his wife.

“How’re they gonna do that?” the wife says, a hand clutching her purse. “Make us wait in that line for nothing.”

They get into their car and drive off. In the distance, I spot the polygonal blue edge of what can only be a Wal-Mart Supercenter, my next (and final) stop.

By 7:10 a.m. I’m lost inside, which invariably happens every time I enter a Wal-Mart. The scene here is pretty much what you’d expect: thousands of your fellow man and woman debauching in a naked lust for cheaply manufactured goods, cramming their shopping carts full of it, unable to get enough. There is merchandise everywhere — on the floors, the walls, between aisles, in the jewelry counter, in home furnishings, in lonesome shopping carts that serve as receptacles for all of the misplaced shit that workers glean throughout the store, to be returned to their rightful spots at a later time.  None of this is a surprise because business is booming at Wal-Mart, the only Fortune 500 company to achieve a sustained period of growth during these bleak times by doing what it does best: muscling prices low enough to keep them in lock-step with the ever-falling wages of the lowest common American denominator.

A bizarre, agoraphobia-inducing experience, being in a Wal-Mart on Black Friday somehow feels appropriate, not unlike being in a church on Sunday, or a synagogue on Saturday, or a subterranean Scientologist clear room on Zeta Reticuli. This place, from its foundation to the vertices of its clunky frame, is built to house and in fact processes a capacity of millions of tons of goods, built to withstand the high yield of Black Friday’s consumerism-gone-wild, built as a stage upon which the great ballet of wildly unsustainable commercial genius might play itself out, fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter, year after year, Black Friday after Black Friday. 

Data from the National Retail Federation has shown that the media’s fears about Black Friday were unfounded — thus far — as retailers attracted 172 million shoppers to stores and websites, a figure that is up from 147 million last year. Even with a shaky economy, a defunct Wall Street, and a credit crunch looming, the American shopper spent an average of $372.57 per — an annual increase of more than 7 percent. Much of this can be handed off to Wal-Mart.

Of all of the different ways we can view Black Friday, pick it apart and overanalyze it, the one I most agree with is that of James Rickert, a custodian at Jefferson Mall for the past six years, who offers a Zen-like koan to me as I pace through the still-bustling corridors of The Mall the day after Black Friday.

On the cusp of elderly, Rickert is making his rounds, collecting trash bags along the perimeter of the mobbed food court. He is a little tired, and when I shake his latex-gloved hand I immediately regret it. I ask him if yesterday was different than any other day.

“Heavier than most days,” he says, shrugging, “but garbage is garbage.”

1. A new beverage courtesy of the McDonalds corporation that boldly attempts to reinvent the Starbucks-wheel in a different, albeit shittier fashion.

 

2. Across the country in Palm Desert, Calif., shoppers at a Toys-R-Us were treated to bursts of gunfire that stemmed from an argument between two groups of shoppers. Two men died as a result of the shooting.