Not too long ago I would wake up early to fully engage in the Black Friday chaos. During the years when I was a graduate student and wasn’t burdened by the repayment of my then-growing student loans, I would take the time to review different Black Friday-themed ads and plot a course for the day. I’d scope out electronics deals, major DVD sales, and I’d always be sure to include a stop at the Walmart that is local to my family’s house because the store manager there would do his own, half-hour sales which were never advertised. It’s remarkable that I used to enjoy going to these stores on Black Friday because today I have zero interest in the mayhem.
In fact, I was so wrapped up in Black Friday that I used to write about it right here on the blog. I wrote reviews of Black Friday dating back to 2008, 2006, 2005, and even way back in 2004. After 2008, I stopped going out on Black Friday. It was around that time when I really started planning to kick my student loan repayment into high gear. Plus, some time around 2008 is when the insanity of Black Friday shopping was reaching an apex. And if there were ever two good reasons to stay away from the big box stores and malls on Black Friday, then those are two really good reasons to stay at home.
Fast forward to 2013 and things are a little bit different. First, I no longer have the albatross of student loans weighing me down. Second, stores are now opening on Thanksgiving night to accommodate a portion of the traditional Black Friday crowd. And finally, so many consumers out there are struggling financially that the idea of spending all day shopping on Black Friday just doesn’t make good financial sense any more. It’s certainly a different world than back in 2008 when I last wrote a review of what I encountered on Black Friday. And since the world is a little bit different now than it was back in 2008 I decided to brave the stores on Thanksgiving weekend for the first time in years. This is what I found…
Thanksgiving Night Shopping
Around 11:00pm I decided to go shopping for two specific items. The items weren’t for my family since I finished Christmas shopping for them well before Thanksgiving. Instead, the items I was looking to purchase were for my church’s Christmas giving tree. If you’re not familiar with a giving tree, it’s where the less fortunate folks in a parish ask the church for help in providing their kids with a merry Christmas morning by helping them buy a few gifts. Within the program, though, there are restrictions. For example, at my church you need to be an active parishioner in order to participate in the program. In other words, you can’t just show up in November and say, “Hey, I need help buying gifts again this year.” Nope – ain’t going to happen.
I also have some personal rules that I follow for the Christmas giving tree program. One of those rules is that I don’t buy gift cards. Over the years, the number of tags on the giving tree that are asking for gift cards to Walmart, Target, Shoprite, and other retailers has grown exponentially. And if the purpose of the giving tree is to ensure that young kids wake up on Christmas morning with a few toys to play with under the tree, then I don’t see how a gift card gets a 6 year old boy or a 7 year old girl to that end. One of my other rules is that I tend to gravitate towards buying gifts for boys instead of girls. Something about going into a toy store and buying a Barbie or a princess play set doesn’t work for me. I couldn’t tell you why – it just doesn’t work. Perhaps my most important rule, though, is that I try to pick giving tree tags for younger kids. I understand that teenagers have as much need for a merry Christmas morning as the young ones, but the young ones have stronger memories of the “good times” during the Christmas season. Plus, at some point if you’re a parent and you’re asking for help getting your 15 or 16 year old kid some gifts for Christmas (and you’ve done so for the last 15 or 16 years), then you failed at some aspect of your life. And I know that is a presumptuous statement, but if you have a 15+ year track record of not being able to save a few buck each year so you can buy 3 or 4 nice things for your 15+ year old kids during Christmas, then I’m not interested in advancing your inability to plan ahead and live an irresponsible lifestyle.
So I stick with getting gifts for the little ones. Now back to the story…
This year, I picked two gift tags – one for a 7 year old boy and one for a 9 year old boy. They both wanted wrestling toys. One wanted a wrestling figure and the other wanted a wrestling ring: two very easy toys to pick up on Thanksgiving night after I left my family’s house. At some point around 11:00pm I went to the local K-Mart and they had all of the toys right there. Most importantly, though, they didn’t have an excessive amount of people in the parking lot or in the store. In fact, it looked like any other Thursday night in the store. I grabbed a few wrestling figures and the ring and headed for the checkout (I go a little bit above any beyond so when a kid asks for a wrestling ring, he gets a ring and two wrestling figures and when a kid asks for a single wrestling figure, he gets three). And the checkout is what stopped me in my tracks. After very publicly promoting that they’d be open all Thanksgiving Day and night, my local K-Mart had two cashiers working. TWO! Look, if you’re only going to put two cashiers on duty on what could have been one of the heaviest shopping nights of the year, then you’re better off not opening the store at all.
Each of the two checkout lines was about 15 people deep and everyone was pissed that the store decided to open without adequate coverage in the checkout lanes. After spending some time observing (I observe a lot when I’m in these stores), I realized that people with only a few items were checking out quicker at the courtesy desk. I quickly moved over to the courtesy desk, checked out, and left the K-Mart with my Christmas giving tree toys in hand (actually, they were in a bag). My next stop was JCPenney at the Monmouth Mall. Admittedly, this stop wasn’t for the giving tree, but rather JCPenney is one of the few stores where you can find really high quality big and tall clothing, so I stopped there to see what was on sale. I wound up buying a quarter zip sweater that was actually too big (I returned it the next day for the right size). Some of my observations about JCPenney include the fact that a lot of the Thursday night shoppers – and by “a lot” I mean at least 90% of the entire population that I saw in my area that night – were of specific ethnic or cultural descent. I’m not suggesting that 90% of the people in the stores were a single ethnicity or cultural identity – not at all. Instead, I’m saying that 90% of the entire population consisted of a diversity of people including first generation Mexican immigrants, Orthodox Jewish people, first and second generation Indian families, etc. If I had to suggest a single ethnicity that was more prevalent than the rest, then I’d say that the Hispanic population outpaced everyone else by leaps and bounds. Anyway, just a random observation that occurred to me while I was at JCPenney.
After my quick stop at JCPenney (I was in the store for a total of about 10 minutes), I headed to one of the habitually worst places to shop in Monmouth County – the Neptune Township Walmart. Honestly, folks, if you ever want to have a horrendous shopping experience, then go to the Neptune Walmart at any time of the day and try to order anything from the deli counter. If you get away from that deli counter in under 15 – 20 minutes, it would be record-breaking. Anyway, my purpose of going to this disaster area on Thanksgiving Night was to purchase the gift bags that my church requires you place your giving tree gifts in before you bring them to the church. And I have to admit – this wasn’t a big ordeal for me on Thanksgiving Night. I went into the store, grabbed the two gift bags, walked to the register and waited a split second while the person in front of my checked out, and then I checked out myself and left the store. As I left the store I was asked to show my receipt and my purchases (which were in my hand because I refused to take a plastic bag to put two paper gift bags in). My entire experience at the Neptune Walmart was not aggravating at all and that is pretty shocking considering that store’s atrocious history. I should comment, though, that I didn’t venture to the back of the store where the electronics department is located. I looked back there and it looked like Armageddon on earth, but I didn’t dare take a walk to that part of the store. No reason to ruin my shopping experience, you know?
And that was my Thanksgiving Night experience.
The only thing I did on Black Friday was head back to JCPenney to return and switch out the quarter-zip sweater that I purchased a few days earlier. There was a small line in the store, but it was fully acceptable. In fact, I have to salute the young woman who handled my switch request at the checkout counter. She ran into a series of problems trying to make the switch in the system and she kept asking for my patience, which I always give to a cashier (I always remember that the last thing they need is an angry me staring at them). And because I was so patient with this woman, she took an additional $10 off of my purchase which brought the item down from its original price of $45 to the sale price of $25 to the additional reduced price of $15. Not bad for a nice piece of winter clothing.
And that’s the whole of my shopping experience this Black Friday. The lessons learned include that shopping on Thanksgiving Night means less crowds and higher diversity of shoppers while the big department stores make returning items a very easy and even thankful process. Another lesson learned is that I’m thankful to have completed my shopping before Thanksgiving and via all-online stores. Overall, I was very pleased with this year’s shopping experience, though not pleased enough to make it a regular occurrence each year.