Black Friday at Midnight: One Shopper's Tale of Woe

What was I doing here? Cold and drowsy, standing in with hundreds of other bargain-itis victims in a line that snaked around Best Buy and ran the entire length of the big-box shopping center.

Best Buy employees were walking by, pitching Best Buy credit cards. (Guys, some coffee would've been nice too.) Five police cars were parked by the entrance. Officers monitored the scene.

"This is insane," the man behind me said. "This is the craziest thing."

I agreed. It could've been worse, though. A lot worse. As in people pepper-spraying or shooting each other.

Why was I here? The reason, I convinced myself, was to buy a Blu-ray player. I didn't want to invest a lot of money in an HD video format that may not be around very long, and one of Best Buy's doorbusters, a Toshiba Blu-ray player for the dirt-cheap price of $39.99, sounded appealing.

There was another reason, though: To experience Black Friday madness for myself. Why would seemingly sane people--the ones not packing heat-- brave the elements at miserable hours, just to save a few bucks on stuff that will probably be sold out before they enter the store?

Are Black Friday doorbusters really for suckers? I had to find out for myself.

I arrived at 11:07 p.m., 53 minutes until opening, on Thanksgiving night. Was I too late to grab the dirt-cheap Toshiba player? Probably, but I since I had taken the trouble to drive here, I decided to stick it out and hope for the best.

I walked toward the end of the line and studied the crowd: People in their twenties, mostly. Joking, laughing. A party atmosphere, almost. But as midnight approached, the demographic mix changed: More middle-aged folks, grandparents, even some children as young as ten.

From the snippets of conversation I overheard, most people were here to grab a television, particularly the night's mega-bargain: a Sharp 42-inch HDTV for $200.

"We should've checked out Amazon instead," I heard someone grumble.

At midnight, the line began to move slowly. Since Best Buy was letting only a few people in at a time, it took me 15 minutes to enter the store.

Bargan-itis Blues

It was a madhouse inside: Uneasy shoppers combing bins for game and DVD deals, frantically grabbing boxes, and blocking aisles with their carts. The Best Buy staff did its best to keep order, but they were overwhelmed. Everyone looked like they'd rather be somewhere else.

I went straight to the home theater section and spotted a stack of Toshiba boxes on the floor. Blu-ray players! Was this the $39.99 doorbuster? I asked a fellow shopper. "I think so," he said unconvincingly. I didn't see a price, and I couldn't spot a Best Buy employee among the unruly horde. So I grabbed one of the boxes and marched immediately to the register, which wasn't crowded yet.

When the clerk scanned the box, the price was $99.99. I had picked the wrong model! I asked him to cancel the purchase, which he did politely. I returned immediately to the Blu-ray section.

I studied the stack of Toshiba Blu-ray players again: Each box had the model number BDX2250 printed on it. That was the $100 model. But the $39.99 doorbuster was model BDX2150.

I spotted another shopper carrying the elusive BDX2150. An unboxed Mr. Coffee was nearby, and for a nanosecond I considered grabbing it, bonking my rival over the head, and grabbing his Toshiba player.

No, no, too many witnesses.

A crowd had formed in the Blu-ray section; people were mumbling about the Toshiba drive. They couldn't find the mysterious doorbuster either.

I combed adjacent aisles. I was ready to give up when I spotted a lone Toshiba Blu-ray box off in a corner. Was it the right model? Yes!

Please don't judge. I know people that are starving in parts of the world. But for this one, shining moment of my existence, I was a doorbuster winner. We take our victories where we can.

You Can Never Leave

Yikes! What happened to the short line to the register? It was gone, replaced by a Disneyland-like queue that snaked to the back of the store, ran along the wall of HDTVs, and curved back toward the digital cameras.

I trudged to the back of the line and I checked my watch: 12:41 a.m.

A young woman in front of me was soon joined by her mother, who was pushing a cart with two 46-inch TVs, an Insignia and a Toshiba. With her leg, she was pushing a 43-inch Samsung. It looked like a high-tech cattle drive.

The mom was griping about back pains, leg pains, and so on. Her misery index was high, and so was mine. I helped her push the Samsung.

Mom glanced at my sad little Blu-ray player. "That's all you're getting?"

OK, I was a fool for braving this nightmare for a $40 Blu-ray player, but I wasn't the only one. People up and down the queue were holding only a handful of DVDs, or maybe a couple of video games.

"What time did you get here?" Mom asked. She was amazed that I had arrived just an hour before opening. She and her daughter had been in line since 7:30 p.m.

It took an hour to reach the register. When I left the store, it was 1:43 a.m. My Black Friday midnight extravaganza had taken roughly three hours, including driving time.

So are doorbuster specials are for suckers? Well, yes and no. If you're expecting to get that 42-inch HDTV for $200, but didn't camp out hours in advance, you'll probably leave the store disappointed.

But maybe there's a silver lining here. Most of the shoppers I saw at Best Buy weren't alone. They had come with family and friends, and perhaps there was some secret bonding going on here. Retail therapy meets family counseling, if you will.

And even if the experience wasn't fun at the time--particularly for Mom, her aching back, her grumpy daughter, and the three TVs they were lugging--it may be good for a few laughs when retold years later. The electronic gizmo they bought will be long gone, but they'll have fond memories of the time they braved Black Friday, spent a few hours together, and weren't even pepper-sprayed.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci at Today@PCWorld, Twitter (@jbertolucci) or jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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