I was only sixteen years old on my first Black Friday. We pulled up on that cold November morning in dad’s Jeep and I surveyed the line of people as they waited patiently across the front of the Country Buffet next door. We’d trained long and hard for this day and I was giddy at the opportunity of being almost overwhelmed by customers. “By the afternoon,” my general manager said, “there won’t be a single visible tile on the racetrack”, which was code for the broad aisle that looped around our store. We opened at an incredibly early 6AM and my goal was simple: survive.
If you’ve never worked retail, you aren’t so much an ‘associate’ on Black Friday as you’re a traffic sign. Go to these bins for all those crappy movies you want. Go over there for the discount cell phones. Stand in this line for the next two hours to check out. Yes, this one, the one that concludes at the opposite end of the building from the registers. There’ll be a guy at the end with a buttload of balloons to let you know you’re in the right place. The provided breakfast was usually McDonalds and it was always cold. It was free, so stop complaining. Dinner would arrive in two hour intervals starting at 10AM and your lunch is pre-scheduled. You’ll be moored to this location for the next eleven hours, so you best enjoy it. Oh, and we erected big boxes of TVs around your section so people won’t skip lines.
I cherished it. Every moment of it. It was retail at its peak. No, you couldn’t sell anything, but it was the euphoria, the chaos, that drew you in like a vacuum tube. More would follow until we returned to normal traffic in mid-January.
As the years progressed, things changed. The budgets got tighter, so the free food on weekends gradually vanished. The Christmas party went away. Traffic got lighter so the deals got crazier. The composition of the store changed as a sea of CD aisles became cell phones and computers. Better planning was needed to complete these transactions, so employees were out amongst the queue earlier and earlier on those cold mornings as tickets were handed out and instructions dealt. I did ten of them, most of them on the favored morning shift, but too many had me on the afternoon and closing shifts, some in the store until 1AM on Saturday. Still, it was probably my favorite day of the year.
As the brick and mortar retailers are losing ground to online flash deals and cheap shipping, they’re also becoming increasingly desperate. Last year, many stores opened at midnight, requiring several hours of lead-in on Thanksgiving to make sure the house was in order. People know how these things go, of the crazy sales, of the people getting crushed at Walmarts and the general depravity of humans when the store doesn’t provide enough oversight. In all of my years in retail, all of my Black Fridays were always relatively contained and always incredibly safe.
But things are different, they’re getting weirder. With Target opening at 9PM and Walmart opening at 8PM, well before the actual Black Friday begins, we see the number crunchers in the big corporate towers seeking to maximize their vanishing profits. Retail associates don’t get many days off, they’re far from bankers, but Thanksgiving is one of them. So while those well-dressed executives who pitched this over three or four PowerPoints are sleeping well in their homes or sitting far from the action, the meat of the company is on the line sacrificing their treasured family time for middling wages. Meanwhile, you’re forcing customers out into the wilderness on a day they should be sharing with loved ones so they can get your shitty laptops.
How much further does this need to go before something – or someone – snaps? Why not just skip Thanksgiving holiday altogether? Won’t that make a lot more sense.
Well, the only thing I’m going to be doing on Black Friday is sleeping, a welcome retirement of a retail holiday that doesn’t need this much attention.