Bargain Hunters Turn Out in Force
This year I drew the short straw on Black Friday, agreeing to cover it on the local scene for The Pilot because, let’s face it, I’m usually up writing at my desk at such an ungodly early hour anyway, and didn’t have to be anywhere except at an afternoon football game.
According to the National Retail Federation and The Pilot’s splendid new business writer Ted Natt, stores expect holiday sales to rise this year a cheerful 2.3 percent to $447 billion — with the average American spending $688.87 on holiday-related shopping. Can you say “Merry Christmas, Mr. Visa?”
Beleaguered merchants were so eager to get rolling with the super sales and doorbusters this year that “Black Friday” actually crept well into “Turkey Thursday” for the first time in many places.
Anyway, it was kind of nice to roll out of bed at 3 a.m. Friday morning and cruise over to Big Box Row on U.S. 15-501 and find the line to get into the store snaking entirely around the corner of the Best Buy building.
At the front of the line, awaiting the store’s announced 4 a.m. opening hour, stood Steven Elliot and his son Caleb, 13, of Aberdeen. They’d shown up and pitched a four-man tent by the front door around noon on Thanksgiving, eager to get one of the store’s advertised Toshiba laptops for $110 and maybe a Garmen GPS unit for half-price.
“We kind of missed all the turkey and trimmings yesterday,” Steven said with a laugh, “but it’s been kind of fun camping out with my son. This is my fourth Black Friday and his first — so it’s kind of a tradition with us now. We’ve made friends with a lot of folks.”
Caleb was in quest of his own iPod.
“If you’re here over 12 hours, you’re family,” said surprisingly chipper Chris Munar, of Carthage. “You get to know a lot of great people just standing out here. That’s one of the bonuses of doing this.” He explained that he was also after a half-priced Blu-ray player.
Behind him were Mike McKerlie and Jami Morton, 20-somethings who work together at Fred Astaire Dance Studio, who showed up around 4 p.m. Thanksgiving day to secure their places in the Best Buy line.
“Fortunately I had Thanksgiving lunch at my grandmother’s house in Ashley Heights,” Morton explained, “and it was awesome. So this hasn’t been too bad at all — kind of fun, actually.” McKerlie and Morton were hoping to dance away with one of those half-price Toshiba laptops each.
“This beats Walmart,” Morton added with the smile of a Black Friday veteran. “Last year, that scene was wild. I got covered with Crazy String.”
Before facing the nation’s leading retail outlet on limited sleep, I slipped up to Belk to see what kind of land assault the venerable North Carolina-based department store might be under.
There, moments before the front doors opened at 4 a.m. sharp, I found a couple of hundred patient souls waiting in a line that stretched almost up the sidewalk to their men’s store.
A beaming lady in pink, who shouted gleefully over a scrum of shoppers packed in tightly by the front doors that her name was “Summer Lake from Seven Lakes,” turned out to be the first Belk Black Friday customer through the doors — the first to receive her complimentary Belk gift card for her moxie in coming out so early to shop.
The gift cards, which were handed out to the first 250 souls through the door, ranged in value from $5 to $1,000 — one of the better promotions I’ve seen or heard about on our national day of conspicuous consumption.
“I have no idea what I’m doing here,” grumbled Francis Warren, a rangy older gent who indeed looked a little like a lonely long-horn steer among a happy flock of Hampshire sheep. He admitted that he’d been first to Walmart at 1 a.m. in search of a remote-controlled truck for his grandson — to no avail — and was now in search of something for his daughter.
“I’ve never done this before,” he admitted, wandering off with a blank face and his complimentary gift card.
“Just another Black Friday virgin,” laughed a lady named Hope and her two buddies from Pinehurst.
“Don’t forget to scratch off your card, honey!” she called after him, shaking her head at the folly of men. In seconds, poor Warren was gone, swallowed whole by a very enthusiastic crowd of female shoppers.
“It’s been a great fall thus far for us,” confirmed store manager Gordon Willis, who was personally greeting customers and even handed me a complimentary gift card although, technically speaking, I used my major media credentials to cut to the front of the line.
“November saw strong sales, and this year’s Black Friday crowd is probably twice what it was last year,” Willis said. “So we’re really enthused by the way folks have turned out.”
With a cup of Joe from Starbucks, which opened around 3, I was properly fortified to mosey on to Walmart, the nation’s retail colossus — where, as expected, I discovered the entire parking lot full of cars and momentarily quailed at the prospect of venturing inside.
It was now a quarter to 5 in the morning — seriously late for a veteran Black Friday shopper — but a kind of controlled mayhem prevailed in the vast, brilliantly lit store. I found aisles full of consumers filling up carts and waiting for rolling racks of advertised MP3 players to go on sale for $29 at 5 a.m. sharp.
I also spoke with two women from Raeford who were maneuvering three shopping carts full of consumer electronics.
“We’re on our third circuit through,” said Deb Alonzo, accompanied by her friend Cindy. “Unfortunately, we arrived here too late for the $100 TV sets. But we made out OK, I think. This thing is a blood sport. You really have to be into it. We are!”
I brazenly asked them how much they’d dropped this Black Friday.
“I don’t know exactly,” Alonzo said. “But probably around $700 thus far.”
I told her she made the National Retail Federation very proud. She asked me what I was drinking.
After that, with sunrise just 90 minutes away, I scratched off my Belk complimentary gift card and discovered it was worth $10. I drove back to Belk and bought a pair of swell half-price Timex watches for someone in the family for Christmas.
With my discount, my Black Friday spending for 2010 came to just $51. And maybe if nobody wants the watches, why, I’ll keep them myself. After all, I can always use twice as much time at the holidays.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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