The fourth Thursday of November. Most celebrate it as Thanksgiving. As the evening of the holiday approaches, millions of people are stuffed with turkey and all the trimmings. Most retreat to the living room and lounge on the couch as the third NFL football game of the day begins. Others go watch the latest big movie releases.
But for a select portion of the nation, Thanksgiving night is really just Black Friday Eve. People who work in retail get their stores ready for the next morning (or, in some cases, for later that day — stores are opening as early as 5 pm on Thanksgiving Day). And Black Friday shoppers are finalizing their strategies for getting the best deals possible.
Black Friday is on the defensive these days. Sales were down 11 percent last year, and this year, some stores aren't opening at all. Outdoor retailer REI is keeping all its stores closed and encouraging its employees to spend the day enjoying the outdoors.
I've experienced both sides of Black Friday, first as a retail manager and then as the husband of a Black Friday shopping aficionado. And I can attest that, yes, Black Friday is ridiculous. It's stressful, chaotic, and can bring out the worst in people. But it's also, in its own way, a lot of fun: a rite of passage for retail workers and a bonding opportunity for the shoppers who flock to the mall. Here's what I've seen in my years as a participant in Black Friday.
What it's like to work Black Friday
I worked in retail management for seven years. And I still wear those years like badges of honor because, people, it's a grind.
Most people look forward to the holidays. The four-day weekend of Thanksgiving. Perhaps a winter vacation to someplace warm. Then comes the holiday vacation breaks from December 24 through January 2. Yes, there truly is a reason to sing, "‘Tis the season to be jolly."
Unless you're a retail employee. Then the holiday season is nothing more than another workday, week, month, and season, although now with double or triple the customer flow, longer hours, and the added fact that attendance is required during that season.
During my time in retail, I never got to take Thanksgiving or December holiday season vacations. And sadly, on Thanksgiving Day, I was missing those turkey dinners, football games, movie nights, and so on.
Why? Because my sole purpose was to serve the Black Friday shoppers.
How stores actually make money on Black Friday
Whether it's Best Buy, Target, Walmart, or any department store, there is a long and detailed plan of attack designed well ahead of Black Friday.
During my retail years, I was forced to sit through seemingly endless meetings held by our store and district managers. It was all about how to drive up our sales. You see, those Black Friday discounts for big-ticket items — video game consoles, TVs, smartphones, etc. — are just a ploy to get shoppers to buy what the companies really profit from: accessories and, in our case, extended warranties. Those are where the real profit margins are.
We were advised to push accessories with any sale.
"You're going to need these cables, batteries, and don't dare hook that thing up without a Monster Cable surge protector!"
So we'd devise ways to keep accessories and extended warranties at the front of the displays. We'd go so far as to pile them on top of the boxes in the aisles in such a way that customers had to at least acknowledge them.
Next time you go into a store, pay specific attention to the endcaps and displays as you walk through the aisles and as you wait in line. Chances are you're staring at endless accessories.
After the mind-numbing sales tactic speeches, the powers that be would then shift gears and talk about how "fun" the day will be.
Managers came up with games that we the employees could play throughout the day.
"Whoever sells an extended warranty, get on the intercom and say..." whatever lame password or passphrase they would come up with.
There were cringe-inducing times when they'd pump the latest annoying song over the speakers before the doors opened and almost force us to clap, dance, and play along.
Some managers would attempt to turn it into some sort of pep rally. Most of us would play along with a smile on our face.
And then there were the trucks. Oh, those terrible trucks.
Endless trucks of merchandise would arrive one to two weeks in advance. All of us were forced to empty those trucks, place them on pallets, stage them in the warehouse, and prepare our departments.
Those Black Friday discounts for big-ticket items are just a ploy to get shoppers to buy what the companies really profit from
Then on Wednesday night, we had to stage those endless pallets of merchandise in various locations throughout the store. Despite any corporate plan the managers had set for where each stack of items was placed, when all is said and done, right before those doors open the store always looked like a cluttered mess.
The moment when the unlucky individual who'd been selected to open the store doors walked up to the front of the store was a mixed bag of emotions. On one level, there was the thrill of excitement as the hundreds outside begin to cheer. On another level, there was the terrified little child in all of us who didn't know what to expect and couldn't wait for it to be over — perhaps kneeling in a figurative corner, rocking back and forth murmuring, "Find a happy place. Find a happy place."
And then: chaos. A mad rush to the doors.
It's like watching a tsunami coming at you. Only instead of water and debris, it's men, women, and children of all ages.
We'd watch in shock as a flood of people would fight for hot-ticket items. Shoppers would push each other aside.
The worst part of the night and day was being the bearer of bad news to the unstable bunch when hot-ticket items had disappeared.
"No, ma'am, I don't understand why the store only had 10 of those door-buster items in stock."
"I'm sorry, sir, if you had been here just 30 seconds ago you would have had one."
"I'm sorry, kid, but that lady over there took the last five copies of that new game you stood in line for."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, I don't play the games and have no clue what the differences between controllers are."
"Yes, sir, I know. It would be nice to have ALL of the registers open, but management apparently thinks having only half of them open will be suffice."
"Yes, ma'am, I know the lines are long and slow. It's Black Friday."
"Please don't hurt me."
As the night went on, and then into the next day, employees would come and go in shifts. Sure, there was likely some free pizza and beverages in the break room, but you only had a short time to enjoy it, and all too often the pizza was cold and the soda was warm by the time you could get to it.
The Black Friday experience is a rite of passage. My co-workers and I made the best of it with smiles on our faces.
What it's like to be a Black Friday shopper
I'm the husband of a confessed Black Friday shopaholic. My wife and her mother are seasoned pros. It's a tradition for them. On occasion, their schedules and geographical distances have kept them apart. And on those occasions I, the ever-loyal husband, have joined my wife at the mall.
Black Friday shoppers have their own gene of sorts. It allows them to actually enjoy the process of planning, standing in line, and getting deals.
My wife has that gene. I do not.
I've asked her time and time again, "Why? Why do you do it? Why do you put yourself through this?" For my wife and her mom, there are a variety of answers that they quickly list with glee and a clear — and slightly scary — glint in their eyes.
"It's the adrenaline. The hunt for the best deals! It's just tradition. Mother and daughter time!"
The strategy behind Black Friday shopping
In the weeks leading up to Black Friday, my wife and mother-in-law gather the many sales ads from nearly every retailer imaginable. They study them obsessively.
They've been known to write maps of their go-to places, along with to-the-hour schedules of what places they'll hit in what order.
My wife even found a Black Friday smartphone app called Flip that has all of that information readily available to her on her iPhone, even allowing her to create shopping item lists, schedules, and store layouts.
Over the years, my wife and her mother have devised Black Friday shopping hacks, like having one person wait in the checkout line while the other rushes around the store to hunt down the hot items. If they have friends or family with them, they'll split up into teams, as some stand outside in line waiting for the doors to open as others hit another store.
My last venture with my wife was a couple of years back. Her mom was out of town. We parked the car in the lot of our first store, Kohl's. The line was already wrapping around the building. The doors wouldn't open for another couple of hours. And this was Wisconsin, mind you, so it was cold.
I worked in retail management for seven years. And I still wear those years like badges of honor.
We walked our way to the back of the line, shoppers of every demographic present. And we waited.
As I looked toward the front of the store when the opening time neared, I noticed a large group of shoppers gathering right in front of the store. A hundred strong at least.
"What are those people doing?" I asked my wife.
"Oh, they're going to rush the doors when the store opens."
I didn't believe her. Surely they were going to wait until this long line of hundreds who had waited hours upon hours to enter had their chance to get into the store in proper orderly fashion.
My wife laughed. And sure enough, when the doors opened, those wretched hundred rushed the doors in front of all of us!
Yet despite all of this, despite all of the irrational behavior, my wife keeps going back for more each year.
I asked her recently, "What about Cyber Monday? Why not just order everything online from the comfort of our nice, warm home?"
"Where's the fun in that?"
Ken Miyamoto is the content manager for ScreenCraft, an organization that helps screenwriters connect with film and television industry professionals. He is also a top writer on the question and answer site Quora. He has worked in the film industry since 1999, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios, a script reader/story analyst for Sony Pictures, and a produced screenwriter. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and children.