It was 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving, 2017, and I was at Walmart in Albany. This was what they call a “doorbuster sale,” a name implying that we are so desperate for their discounted luxuries that our numbers would actually destroy the door as we piled through. The prices were really slashed this year, I hoped that they could afford to fix the door.
The sale would not start until 6 p.m., but the store was open, the lot already packed. Shoppers were finding nosebleed parking and streaming toward the doors. Out of minivans, mid sized SUVs and Priuses came families, many with children and elders in tow. I imagined that Black Friday might be a part of some families’ Thanksgiving ritual. A sweet deal on a hotplate and soundbar: let us give thanks.
The people that definitely were not enjoying Holiday Family Time were the army of Walmart employees poised to deal with the influx of shoppers. I wondered how many of them could afford a discounted laptop; rent is still due on the first. Many of them wore bright blue vests and Christmas light necklaces. They held strategic positions throughout the sprawl, some charged with giving out tickets for the most desirable items, and some for herding us through the maze that they had created. All hands on deck.
Some aisles were blocked with yellow tape, some with large boxes full of merchandise. A method was in play here. The trick is to drive us toward the commodities then hustle us to the registers. We swipe our cards and head out the door, making room for more, and it continues.
Large arrangements of products were staged in the main aisles, plastic wrapped columns with signs reading “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THIS MERCHANDISE… WILL NOT RING UP TILL THANKSGIVING THURSDAY 6 P.M.” Shoppers crowded around the columns, some casually inspecting the wares. The largely closed-off area became more congested by the second. A particularly authoritative employee roamed the area, shouting about how these products were not to be touched.
I thought about all the people standing with me and wondered how many others across the country were standing under fluorescent lights at that moment. Would they be standing someplace else if these affordable goods weren’t available, perhaps outside of a government building, or the home of a powerful person? Maybe Black Friday isn’t a marketing scheme, but an appeasement.
I figured that anything could happen once they cut the plastic. We’ve all seen the videos on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Would I be viciously attacked by some hulking brute, crazed by the thought of acquiring a $298 Sharp 55” Class 4k Smart TV? I hoped not, I can’t afford a new pair of glasses. Were glasses on sale too?
At 5:50 p.m. the plastic was removed, and the shuffle of feet and an elevated roar of voices were distinct. I will tell you that I was not viciously attacked, so those of you hoping for blood can stop reading now.
The sale was on. Hands shot from the crowd toward the wares, carts brimming with televisions, housewares, and discounted bedding were pushed through the mob. A child clutching three $20 Ugly Stik fishing poles in each hand squeezed by, and another zoomed past on a bicycle in one of the less-traveled aisles.
Enormous lines had formed at every register in the store. In electronics, carts in queue encircled the entire department. One man estimated a two-hour wait, not a far-fetched assumption. The register lines in the front of the store spilled into the aisles behind them, with blocked off passages collecting everyone right where Walmart wanted them to be: about to pay. Most waited patiently, but there were plenty of under-the-breath curses, understandably.
Many equate Black Friday with unhinged maniacs fist-fighting over a $100 discount, but Thanksgiving night in Albany I saw many more acts of kindness than aggression. People were making way for each other, giving each other tips about the sales and layout, and apologizing for bumping into one another. There were some irritated exchanges, but for the most part, politeness and respect were king.
Some faces seemed flustered, but many were smiling. We are chasing the American Dream, many of us feel a little richer when we fill our homes and apartments with niceties. I’ve been one to look upon the spectacle of Black Friday with disapproval, but seeing that collection of satisfied people, I felt happy for them. I hoped that all of our lives would become a little easier.
Every year we hear voices chiding Black Friday shoppers for their unabashed consumerism, I have been one of those voices. Certainly many things can be said, and have been, about the inconveniences that people will endure to acquire affordable luxuries on Thanksgiving. We can talk, write, scold about priority crises all year, but if our priorities will damn us, we are already damned.
By Jay Sharpe