Black Friday from the other side of the line: A retail perspective

Black Friday Best Buy

The crowd is a singular being. What is so striking is that the “mob mentality” exists on both sides of the fence: they see themselves as part of some larger collective, and we too, view them as a singular entity: some Lovecraftian horror slithering through aisles, consuming all in its path. We put products in thousands of hands, answer questions from hundreds of mouths. Concepts of customer service, held in high regard any other day, go out the window, purely out of necessity. Today, you are not building individual relationships or trying to solve customer’s problems. Today, you are trying to satiate a beast.

Which is why it is so shocking when a man grabs my arm, and makes direct eye contact with me. On a day when our jobs essentially boil down to assembly line handouts to whomever demands them, this humanizing act is jarring. He yells over the din of the crowd for a laptop we have not had for about an hour. I inform him of this, and the way in which the news impacts him is visible in the contortions of his face. I expect him to begin weeping, but I do not stick around to find out. Any other day, he’d be a priority customer, someone I would’ve bent over backwards to assist. Today, he’s another casualty.

One of many I’ve seen over my years at one of the big-box meccas of bargains. While customers spend hours in line sipping cocoa, snoozing and chatting, we’re working overtime behind the scenes to make sure things go smoothly. Here’s what D-Day looks like from the inside, and a few tips if you should decide to throw yourself into the horde this year.

Preparing for war

In the days leading up to Black Friday, we speak of it in hushed tones, with grizzled veterans interjecting advice that would not be out of place on a battlefield: “Don’t stop moving, act on instinct, and whatever you do, never allow a customer to see the fear in your eyes.” All of which is fantastic advice — when those doors open, consumers lose all concept of their superego. It is not uncommon to be hammered with demands that barely qualify as coherent sentences; in their violent, price-obsessed frenzy, people will forget the use of articles (“I need television!”) or simply revert to gestures to get their point across. May God have mercy on your soul if you pause, even a moment, to formulate a response: they will tear you apart.

Bring out the crazies

Certainly, filtered through the eyes of the average retail associate, anyone who decides to wake up that early in the morning and wait on line is insane. These are a lawless people, they are monsters swarming a store at 4 a.m. in a scene out of 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead. I once witness a grown man soil himself in the middle of our television department. It took a minute to register this, I had no sleep and was powered purely on energy drinks, but it’s a perfect microcosm for the animalistic sensibilities of a Black Friday crowd.

Formula for a mob

The true problem with Black Friday stems from the fact that no one really needs to be there. Granted, on our end, we’re getting paid, and although I can’t speak for everyone, most of us really don’t want to be waking up at ungodly hours to come to work on a day everyone else has off. So it comes down to the consumer: We’re here because consumers, en masse, agreed to show up in the first place. It’s no secret that it’s the deals that have brought you here. The problem is, with most of them, the “deal” concept is a gross misnomer.

Putting tech out to pasture

Pay very close attention to age of Black Friday sale items. In many cases, they’re older models. These models may have been clearance prices already. These are the only ones that, relatively speaking, may be worth a wait on line. Granted, they’re older technology, but they’re being severely discounted to make room for the shiny new devices. Unless you’re a tech-nut who absolutely needs the latest gadget, you can certainly find some good deals. Certainly, I don’t think that’s ever been any big secret.

Watch the model numbers

Where the smoke and mirrors can come in, are in the slight distinctions. You can expect to find a lot of the retail powerhouses pull in subpar models from big name manufacturers they normally wouldn’t carry; items that don’t meet specific criteria but are certainly cheap enough to make it seem like the laptop or GPS being sold is a good deal. Oftentimes, these devices may be very similar to models already being carried; say, the Generic Brand 50XA may be an item normally carried, and on Black Friday, the 50XA1 is being sold for an unfathomable price. That may very well be because that slight differentiator could mean a huge difference in included feature or quality of parts. Just because it’s a Samsung television or an HP laptop does not mean it’s automatically of the same quality as what you’d buy otherwise.

Safe bets

The only sales that I can guarantee where you are absolutely safe on Black Friday are going to be the various forms of media: CDs, Blu rays and DVDs, and video games. There’s no “alternate models” or bootleg versions being sold at major retailers (just make sure you don’t make your purchases from the guy peddling a potpourri of titles spread over a blanket outside the store). In that respect, there’s an obvious face value associated with them, and you can immediately understand what you are paying for. In every other respect, do some research in advance and really weigh the value of your time versus the money being saved. It can be hard to justify an entire night of waiting in sub-zero temperatures to save $60 on a stack of Blu-ray discs.

Conclusion

The bottom line, though, is that regardless of how much I say, or inform you that you certainly will never find me out on any one of those lines, people will absolutely show up for Black Friday sales. For some, their time is worth the couple hundred dollars they’re saving; in fact, perhaps this sale will allow them to afford all of their families Christmas presents. For others, it isn’t about the savings—it’s the tradition. There are those of you who bond with your family as you wait in the dead (possibly cold, depending on your location) of night because you are the Alpha shopper; this is as much a display of the power of body as it is frugal shopping ability.

I can’t profess that I ever intended to sway any of you, nor to pass judgment, simply to inform you all that you are, in no small sense, completely insane.

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