"Man dies shopping on Black Friday. Unfazed shoppers walk around, step over body." That was a Drudge Report headline on Friday, and other media headlined stories of customers fighting over items, with one using pepper spray (see "Black-and-blue Friday," by Sarah Padbury). But in a Houston suburb hit hard by NASA layoffs, I saw something very different from the stereotypical sensationalism.
My research began with bargain hunters camped around a Best Buy store on Gulf Freeway. The first in line, Mark Dickey, owner of NASA Flowers, arrived Tuesday evening to claim this coveted spot. He took turns holding his place in line with his mother, wife, and daughter. On Thanksgiving evening, all three were present, with Mark's wife, Jeannie, sitting behind a portable banqueting table with two laptops and store ads, masterminding the family operation. As they waited, the Dickeys, veterans of five Black Fridays, generously offered tips to others in line.
Their shopping list included televisions, laptops, cameras, and Blu-ray players. Some of their purchases would be for personal use, while others would be gifts. But they also planned to advertise most of their purchases on eBay and Craigslist to sell at a profit and fund all of the family's Christmas expenditures. They had a NASA Flowers company van and two cars backed up and ready to be loaded in front parking spots.
At 8 p.m., the Best Buy general manager and several employees handed out Coke Zero, energy drinks, and packaged popcorn. At 9, the store projected onto a large moving-truck Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. After the movie, store employees handed out product vouchers. At midnight, 75 customers at a time walked into the store to redeem their vouchers.
"I've never spent the night on the sidewalk before," said Cheryl Ford, 28th in line, "but a couple of days out of the year to make my family happy is worth it." Several in line said they were already looking forward to a reunion with new shopping friends next year, and planned to bring a turkey fryer.
Meanwhile, at a nearby Walmart, Jenny Toups, mother of three children under age 10, was leading a team of five friends in shopping not only for Christmas presents but also next year's birthdays. She stood, No. 20 in line, in a Walmart aisle between the Sports and Leisure and Auto Care departments. The main thoroughfare aisle held large pallets of shrink-wrapped product, each with a posted, staggered time at which items could be scanned by cash registers. Shoppers with carts crowded around the pallets, waiting.
Toups' line waited for one of the 42 in-stock Compaq computers available at midnight, a gift for her mother. Toups was once a stay-at-home mom, but economic pressures had sent her back into the workforce teaching first grade. A black-inked "20" on her left hand meant she must remain in line until midnight or lose out on the computer, but the other team members had more flexibility: Taking store ads out of her backpack, they went to work bringing not-so-sought-after items to the team's shopping cart. Circling ads with a pen, Toups mentioned school cutbacks that pushed her to provide her own study aids for her class.
At 10 p.m., a Toups team member left to stand in line at Target. The same process continued through the night and into the next day at Toys R Us, Radio Shack, Macy's, and J.C. Penny.
Some observers might question their priorities, but the Black Friday shoppers I met were not lunatics. They were smart marketplace analysts who had planned ahead to get the most out of their dollars.