Friday, November 26, 2004

Black Friday

For the second year in a row, I got together with some friends and plowed into the insanity of Black Friday.* (This isn't technically true: I overslept last year and greeted them in my driveway, disheveled and dressed in my night-clothes, at 4:30 in the morning and told them I would catch up with them later. Catching up with anyone on Black Friday is well-near impossible, and would be completely impossible without the aid of cell phones. Our catching-up didn't occur until much later in the morning.) I didn't do this because I was looking for anything in particular; I did it partly for the social experience of it all, and partly to document my observations and see what I could learn.

We stopped first at a store called The Bon-Ton because one of my friends wanted to get something there - I'm not even sure what. We ran about the store grabbing things here and there, and after a little while took our places at the end of a 40-person line at one of the cashiers. And this is where the problems started to appear.

The checkout we were waiting at came equipped with two cash registers**, but only one cashier. Another nearby checkout had four cash registers but only two cashiers. I sensed a pattern.

A woman behind me explained this dearth of employees as being the fault of the kids these days, who don't want to get up early and go to work. I listened to her prattle on, loudly, for a while, when I decided that she had directed enough of her words at the back of my head for me to count myself as part of the conversation. I suggested to her that the real reason for the lack of staffing probably had more to do with the deep discounts the department store was offering on Bali Bras and thousands of other items; once people had gotten up early, made their way to the store for a 5:00 AM opening, and chosen their items for purchase, they had already committed themselves in their own minds to buying those products regardless of staffing levels. So the store could cut staffing without suffering any ill effects - and would save a pretty penny on the costs of the people who would otherwise have simply helped get customers out of the store that much more quickly. Understaffing inconveniences customers, puts added pressure on employees, but saves companies some money. And hey, isn't that what it's all about?

After we made our purchases, our group temporarily split up. One friend and I headed back to her SUV to begin loading it with packages, while the third member of our party headed off to Electronics Boutique to try to get some new game at a special sale price. After loading up the SUV we made our way back through The Bon-Ton and through the mall itself. We called our friend who by this time was in line to get the item - since new, hot games are not actually kept out where customers can get them, but are kept behind the counter or in the back office. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting - but which was really probably something like 30 minutes, starting at the opening of the store - our friend made it to the front of the line, where the clerk informed him that he thought they had just sold the last one. Sorry. Can't be bothered to check. Next, please.

Understocking is just a variant of the old bait-and-switch scam, where a retailer claims to have an item in stock, but when the customer comes looking for it, it turns out the item just sold out. However, the retailer notes, there just happens to be a similar product in stock, which also happens to have a much higher profit margin. Surely the customer does not want to go away empty-handed...? But with understocking, no particular effort is made to follow through on this scam, which is actually considered fraudulent and criminal. Instead, the customer is simply presented with a storefull of other items. Surely, the customer thinks, I should not go away empty-handed?

After hitting a few more stores we were all starting to get a little punchy and a lot hungry and we stopped for breakfast, which was surprisingly overpriced. (The surprising part is that these didn't appear to be special "Black Friday" prices, but the restaurant's regular high prices.) We then made it to the one store I had wanted to go to, A.C. Moore, to buy a heavily discounted sale item ($27 instead of $39.) Of course, getting there two hours after the store had opened I had no real expectation of finding the item, and I was right.

Then we moved on to our final stop of the morning, where I did something I'm not very proud of. I bought something in Wal-Mart. But that's a story for another time.***

* For anyone who doesn't know, Black Friday is the term used to describe the day after Thanksgiving, which is the "official" start of the Christmas shopping season. It got its name not because of the misery inflicted on both shoppers and retail employees by the effect of having massive crowds converging on malls and stores in an effort to secure "bargains" that exist in extremely limited quantities and are sold at the "sale" price for only the first few hours of the day, but because this is the day that retail operations generally go "into the black" - that is, they finally start to show a profit for the year, as opposed to being "in the red" or showing a loss for the year. This is itself fairly frightening: eleven months out of twelve just to break even?

**This is an archaic term used to describe the touchscreen, keyboard, cash drawer, and credit card line setup at most checkouts. Once upon a time cash registers were mighty pieces of hardware that were operated by pushbuttons and made great ka-ching noises when they opened, the sounds that you can hear at the beginning of Pink Floyd's "Money" from Dark Side Of The Moon. Please don't ask me to explain those last nine words or I will become sad.

***Brief preview: Wal-Mart is evil. Pure evil.

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