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A family of Black Friday super-shoppers explain the holiday’s appeal

It’s about the deals. It’s about the traditions.

a dense line of people waiting for black friday sales.
Lining up the night before is part of the experience.
Getty Images

This Friday, millions of Americans will brave the crowds and hit the malls in search of Black Friday bargains. The most devoted of them will join the lines before dawn. They will come prepared, fortified with turkey and with coupons. Still the busiest shopping day of the year for stores, Black Friday — often maligned, and sometimes brutal — is not for the faint of heart.

This year, like all years, Mindy and her mother Debbie (last names withheld for privacy/deal strategy) will be among them. Mindy, 24, is an aspiring actress and improviser with a job at a tech startup living in Chicago. Debbie, who reports her age as “older than Mindy,” is a medical receptionist living in the northern suburbs. For them, Black Friday is a tradition, a bonding experience, and a sport. It is also the reason they have a collection of down comforters in the basement.

In a three-way phone call a week before this year’s event, they laid out their strategy. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What’s your general approach to shopping?

Debbie: It’s what you do on the weekend. We shop, we’ll eat, we stop for coffee; it’s just kind of our way of connecting.

Mindy: Yeah, a lot of brunch and then shopping.

Debbie: We want to shop cheap. We go to resale shops, especially the ones that have 50 percent off their resale prices. We feel accomplished if we can get a bargain.

Mindy: We’re into Walmart, Target, Kohl’s, Nordstrom Rack — we’re not mall people, really. Occasionally, if we’re searching for something specific we’ll do the mall, but normally we’re going to strip malls and hole-in-the-wall kinds of places. But always looking for a good deal.

How long have you been shopping Black Friday?

Mindy: It seems like we’ve been doing Black Friday forever. We started when I was in high school.

Debbie: Yeah, when you were old enough.

Mindy: That was 2009.

Debbie: I have a little trouble walking, and we go to these huge malls — it used to be that the malls were the only places that were open at midnight on Black Friday — so Mindy would throw my wheelchair in the car, and off we’d go.

Mindy: Once I kind of got over opening gifts for Hanukkah, and it was more just “I buy things throughout the year, happy Hanukkah!” we started going together. She’d be like, “Okay, this is Hanukkah!”

Debbie: Then I’d have to go home and wrap them, so they’d have something to open up.

Mindy: And then I’d act surprised.

What did you do for Thanksgiving before you started doing Black Friday?

Mindy: We never really had major traditions, but we would go to my mom’s sister’s house.

Debbie: And unfortunately — well, not unfortunately for her, but unfortunately for us — she decided to move to Florida, so now we’re even fewer than we used to be. And that makes me sad, but a lot of the stores are open on Thanksgiving, so we can start even earlier this year. It used to be that we would eat dinner, go home, get a few hours of sleep, and then get to the stores by midnight. We usually head to Gurnee Mills, one of the malls around here, because it can be cold on Black Friday, and this way she could push me without any issue of snow.

Mindy: Those were the good old days, when things would open at 4 am, as opposed to now, when things open on Thanksgiving.

Debbie: We would spend Thanksgiving Day looking at all the ads, planning our strategy, figuring out who had the best bargains. We were into TVs for a while, trying to get the newest and best, so we would decide where we were going to wait in line.

Mindy: I feel like we were cautious about not wanting to go to Best Buy, because that seemed like where everyone would go. We were looking at Walmart, at H.H. Gregg, just looking at numbers and comparing.

Debbie: And Mindy is quick. We were in H.H. Gregg, and there was a TV on sale that I wanted and the shelf was empty, so Mindy started walking around the store, and someone had set one of those TVs down, probably just because it was heavy, and walked away. God bless Mindy, she walked up and grabbed that TV off the floor and came back to me and got her prize.

Mindy: We got it!

Debbie: We do what you gotta do.

What do you do with all the TVs?

Debbie: We haven’t bought TVs for about two years now. We’re kind of winding down with the TVs, but at the time, Mindy took a couple to school. We bought one for my older daughter. We had some really old ones in the house, so we replaced those — at that price, it seemed worthwhile. Though my husband wanted Sonys. Well, I can’t get a Sony for that kind of money! But we still have them.

Tell me about the comforters.

Mindy: Oh my god, yeah. Every year at Carson’s, they have these down comforters. The first year we went out, people were just climbing over each other to get them, and we thought, “What is this?” And so I climbed in there and got one. We were like, “Why do we need this?” We didn’t, really, but everyone was buying them, so we just figured we needed to as well. Now it’s become a joke, because they do them every single year. We probably have seven — I mean, a stupid amount. People go crazy for them at Carson’s; I’m like, “They’re there every year.”

Debbie: But now Carson’s is closed, so no more comforters.

How much are they?

Debbie: Under $20.

Mindy: I got a matching sheet set last year, too. It was a deal.

Are they good comforters?

Debbie: No. I mean, they’re not really down — they can’t be, for that money. Down-alternative, I think they’re called. They wash well. I don’t dry-clean them. I throw them in the wash and the dryer, and then there are organizations around here that look for used comforters, especially for pet shelters. So we donate them after we’re done with them.

I don’t know what we’re going to do this year without Carson’s. Last year, we didn’t have to be at Thanksgiving dinner until 6, so the whole day, we were standing in line at Carson’s. We bought towels. We bought cookware.

Mindy: An air fryer.

Debbie: Everything seems important. You see people carrying things. “Well, don’t we need that? And don’t we need that?”

Mindy: You see all the signs, too. They put a price on, and I’m like, “Yeah! That probably is a good deal!” I mean, is it? I don’t know.

Debbie: But you’re there.

Mindy: Yeah, you’re there. They have the Christmas music going. Everyone’s walking around with huge bags of all the stuff they’re getting. I get anxious, and I think I need that, too.

Debbie: We probably buy too much. And then we’ll go, “Don’t you need new pajamas? Don’t you need new socks?” Once I bought a lot of kitchen stuff, and I probably returned half of it, just because I realized really I don’t need it. I’m not going to use it. We’ve gotten a little bit better about that.

What made you buy it in the moment?

Debbie: The price seems cheap, and I say, “Well, maybe …” I worry I’ll be sorry if I didn’t get it. Don’t I need an extra coffee pot just in case?

Mindy: Some of my friends’ moms’ mottos are like, “Think about it: If you can walk out of the store without it, you really don’t need it.” But I feel like my mom’s motto is, “Just buy it; you can always return it!”

Debbie: No regrets. You can’t have any regrets, because you can’t go back and get that price.

Does it change the way you shop the rest of the year, knowing that you’re going to do this one-day blitz on Black Friday?

Debbie: A lot of times we buy stuff when we want it during the year, but it’s just fun to find a bargain. Just last night, my Keurig broke, so right now, that’s on the top of my list. If it happened in the middle of the summer, I might have replaced it, but this close, I would not buy any major item before Black Friday. They say the prices aren’t that good. I don’t know. I tend to disagree.

Mindy: I don’t think it really changes how I shop throughout the year. I guess I do kind of wait to buy any expensive electronics — not that I buy those a lot — but I would wait until Black Friday for things like that.

Debbie: We just enjoy the whole day. It’s just a fun day for the two of us. This year will be different, because we’re not going to my sister’s. We’re making our own turkey, and we’re going to eat it for lunch and then go shopping. And we have to strategize: What store opens when and who has what on sale? We throw all the ads in the car, and then we’ll sit there in the dark with a flashlight and try to figure out where is the next store, what’s open, what’s not open. Some stores open at midnight for a couple of hours, and then will close again, so we have to make sure we’re there before they close again, but then when they reopen they might have something else on sale. And that’s when we pull into Dunkin’ and get our hot chocolate and our donut and kind of reenergize.

So all together, how much do you usually end up spending?

Debbie: I would say $300 or $400 between the two of us, maybe. If we need a TV. This year will be cheaper because we don’t need any TVs.

Mindy: I got a coat last year, and after piling on all the coupons, it came down like $200. I think that was at Carson’s. I love Carson’s! I’m so sad about it.

What’s changed about Black Friday in the years since you started doing it?

Mindy: I remember one year coming to Kohl’s and there was a huge mob outside the store at midnight, everyone was there. Obviously it’s still crowded, but there are definitely moments where we go into a store and I’m like, “Why is it so dead in here?” I really think Prime Day has changed a lot. People do more with the internet, with Cyber Monday. I never really got into that. I like going to the stores. But I think the internet has definitely changed things.

Debbie: I agree. We used to wait in line at Kohl’s for an hour just to pay. That doesn’t happen anymore. The lines are better. Working in a doctor’s office, I can’t be on my computer on Cyber Monday. And I like to get out and touch and feel things.

Mindy: 100 percent.

Debbie: We dress in layers, so if we want to try a sweater on, we don’t have to look for a dressing room. We’re smart about it.

Black Friday gets a bad rap for being about excessive consumption, rather than gratitude, or family togetherness, or whatever the holidays are supposed to be about.

Mindy: Oh, there’s definitely all these people who say, “Oh, you just spent all day Thursday being thankful for what you have and then you run out Friday needing to get all these new things?” I don’t know. I mean, this is how we bond. I’ve never been one for Thanksgiving. I don’t like cranberries. I’m not into Thanksgiving food.

Debbie: We don’t go over the top.

Mindy: I always think there’s something so cool, too, about seeing the parents who are out there getting the new Lego kit or whatever, and knowing how thrilled that kid is going to be on Christmas morning.

Debbie: What upsets us is seeing the kids in strollers at 2 in the morning. But far be it from me to tell other parents when to put their kid to bed.

I feel like every year, we hear these stories about people behaving really badly on Black Friday, stampeding to get into stores, fighting over products. Have you seen that?

Debbie: I think probably more so it’s with the toys and stuff for kids than fighting over TVs. When we’re in line and they run out, we’re disappointed, but I’m not going to go steal one. Although that one time in that store Mindy did.

Mindy: Yeah, I did.

Debbie: I guess we’re as bad as the next person. I think the holidays are just about gift-giving and wanting what your neighbors have, so people are kind of willing to go out of control for it. I would miss it if I couldn’t do it. I just got my job and I was afraid I’d have to work, but I somehow managed to get the day off. It’s our tradition. If you think you’re too good to do it, well, that’s not your thing then.