Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Busted at a Door Buster Sale

I recently read the late David Foster Wallace’s essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In it Wallace hilariously skewers anything and everything he encountered while sailing aboard a cruise ship.

I wish Wallace had lived long enough to pen his opinions of a post-Thanksgiving Door Buster sale.

The difference between a cruise ship and a Door Buster sale is that cruise ships are at least perceived as enjoyable, even if Wallace discovered otherwise. I don’t believe anybody in Western civilization has ever returned from a Door Buster sale and announced, “That was fun.”

Door Busters, also known as Black Friday sales because they take place the day (I’m sorry, the ungodly early morning) following Thanksgiving, were invented solely because every retail establishment, including those which sell nothing but live bait, decided that sales figures for the entire year should hinge on the single day that follows gluttony, football and tense relations with relatives.

Door Buster sales also exist so television news crews have something to show on a slow news day. Invariably these “packages” (a term from my old TV reporting days) contain only images of fully-grown adults acting like a combination of toddlers and gang bangers as they violently fight over whatever item the offending retailer chose to put on sale for 50 percent off just hours after the Thanksgiving dishes had been cleared away.

Occasionally this YouTube display of news turns into actual news; witness 2008 when security guard Jdimytai Damour was trampled TO DEATH at a Long Island Wal-Mart as customers surged forward to purchase, among other things, a $28 Bissel Compact Upright Vacuum. On that morning, Damour’s first Black Friday job responsibility - and ultimately his last – was to simply open the door.

In spite of Damour’s fate, and similar occurrences with slightly less horrific results (some shoppers merely suffer broken bones in exchange for a DVD player), retailers continue this macabre practice. In the event of mayhem, their savvy marketing departments already have prepared statements that read with all the sincerity of those recited by professional athletes after being caught with steroids, handguns, stolen stereo equipment or all three.

We truly regret this tragic and unfortunate incident. We are cooperating with authorities and are confident that, in time, all the facts will come out. Until then, COME TO OUR EARLY BIRD 4 A.M. SALE! SIXTY-INCH FLAT SCREEN PLASMA TELEVISIONS ONLY $29.99. ONLY THREE IN STOCK!

On the day before Thanksgiving my wife scours the ads – both print and on line – to see if any Door Buster sale items match anything on our daughters’ Christmas lists. Thankfully that has never been the case.

Until this year.

This year my 12-year-old’s Christmas wishes included something known as Wii Fit. I’m still not sure what it is although the Wii homepage promises Wii Fit will improve balance, body mass index and “body control.”

If Door Buster shoppers had an ounce of body control, Mr. Damour might still be alive.

Normally $90, a store called Meijer had priced Wii Fit at $44.99 on Thanksgiving morning. That’s right, Meijer, one of those stores with an identity crisis (groceries to the right, snow tires to the left, thermal underwear and Venetian blinds straight ahead) was having a Black Thursday sale beginning at 6 a.m. Would I wait in line and get one, my wife asked?

Until now the only time I had ever stood in line longer than 30 minutes for anything was 1981 when Bruce Springsteen’s River Tour came through Chicago. I remember cueing up outside a record store four hours before tickets went on sale. Others ahead of me had obviously been there all night, judging by the sleeping bags and body odor. I spent the time chatting with fellow Springsteen fans, listening to his tunes, soaking in stories from Springsteen concert veterans and even sharing cheap wine from a hip flask.

I did score tickets that morning. Not great tickets mind you but tickets nonetheless. And the Boss did not disappoint. Twenty-eight years later, standing in line for something that improved body mass did not seem as appealing, even if I brought my own wine.

Yet I succumbed to my wife’s request with minimal complaining. Truth be known, I was looking forward to it. I’m an early riser by nature so the idea of setting a Thanksgiving alarm didn’t seem that ludicrous. Besides, the store was only ten minutes away from my health club. What better way to begin Turkey Day than by making my daughter happy, saving 50 bucks, and squeezing in a five mile run on the treadmill, thereby burning the calories in one scoop of mashed potatoes?

I awoke at 4:40 a.m. to the sound of rain pelting my bedroom windows. This was no surprise; Murphy’s Law specifically states that if one is going to wait outside a locked store for an inordinate amount of time, it MUST be raining, snowing, hailing or trembling due to an ill-timed earthquake. As I would soon find out, none of these calamities deter a Door Buster shopper.

I grabbed a sweatshirt, my Lands End winter coat, a ski hat and gloves and pulled out of my driveway at 4:50, armed with nothing more than a cup of coffee and my Door Buster game face. As I journeyed toward Meijer, I saw other cars on the road. Suffice it to say that, if you are in your car at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving, it can be for one of two reasons:

· You are heading to a Door Buster Sale
· You need to dispose of a body…QUICKLY!

I live in a fairly safe neighborhood so I naturally assumed everybody who I passed or passed me fell into Category One. I also decided everybody was headed to Meijer in search of a Wii Fit, which made me press down a little more sharply on the gas pedal. I even cut off a few motorists, just to be safe.

At 5:05 a.m. I pulled into the Meijer parking lot, now three-quarters full with cars and one TV news truck. But where was the line? You know, the line of damp, sleepy customers preparing to trample the security guard? It did not exist. Instead, I saw people entering the store.

Did my wife misread the ad? Did Black Thursday actually start earlier than 6 a.m.? Had I failed before I even started?

Turns out, Meijer is open 24 hours so customers are free to come and go any time. But, as the ad promised, Black Thursday sales would not begin before 6 a.m. Customers could wait in line until then.

But which line? I sauntered to the electronics section at the rear of the store to find about 75 people standing in a surprisingly orderly fashion.

“Is this the Wii Fit line?” I asked the woman at the line’s rear.

“No, this is the iPod Nano line,” she replied.

“The Wii Fit line is two aisles over,” said a Meijer employee, gesturing randomly with one hand while pushing a shopping cart full of merchandise with his other.

Immediately I saw one thing about this Meijer place that I liked, namely foresight to split up the lines as opposed to lumping everybody in a single mass. Plus, we were inside! This was going to be a good day!

I took a hard right, counted two aisles, took a left and almost tripped over a patron seated on the floor. I discovered this gentleman was “Wii Fit Door Buster customer number one” and, for all I know, had been there since last Thanksgiving.

I followed the line down the aisle, where it made a gradual turn to the left and spilled over into the next aisle, containing school supplies. Half-heartedly counting in my head, I estimated there to be about 40 shoppers ahead of me. Judging from their body sizes all looked to be buying the Wii Fit for somebody other than themselves. Either that, or Wii Snack was also on sale.

I took a spot behind a woman who appeared to be about 60. A 50-something gentleman got in line behind me and the phalanx of Wii Fit hopefuls continued to grow. Within moments the line had increased by at least 30. As it multiplied, a rough-looking couple trudged to the end. I heard the woman exclaim loudly to her partner, “Baby there’s no way we’re gonna get one of these f*#@%g things.”

I was thinking the same thing but chose not to express it publicly.

At 5:15 a.m. a Meijer manager appeared halfway through the line and announced, to no one in particular, that the store only had 20 Wii Fits.

“You’re welcome to wait but I’m just telling you what we have,” he said, before disappearing.

At this point, my predicament read like a second grade math story problem: You are the 41st person in line for a toy. A grown up says there are only 20 toys available. Will you get a toy? Please show all work.

Common sense dictated that I should get out of line. But, upon hearing the employee’s grim news, exactly ZERO people moved from their places, including Mrs. Potty Mouth well behind me.

“These people must know something I don’t,” I thought. “If they’re not moving, I’m not moving.”

Door Buster shoppers are, if nothing else, eternally optimistic. I could almost hear them rationalizing how a Wii Fit could still be theirs.

“Maybe at least 10 people in front of me will all have fatal heart attacks in the next 45 minutes,” their faces appeared to say.

Or maybe 10 would get trampled once the clock struck six. I decided to wait.

A few minutes later the same Meijer employee appeared and announced that the store actually had 29 Wii Fits available “and some Wii Fit Plusses.” The Wii Fit Plus, by the way, is a slightly more expensive BUT STILL 50 PERCENT OFF ON DOOR BUSTER THURSDAY AT MEIJER model.

This was the first time I had ever heard of a store suddenly discovering MORE merchandise. Whenever I go clothes shopping at the mall and ask if the store contains a particular item in my size, the response invariably is, “That’s all we have.” Nobody has ever said, “You need that in a large? Hang on; I think a truckload of larges just came in. I will go get one for you because I am a dedicated store employee.”

By now I realized that there was no rhyme or reason to a Door Buster sale. Twenty Wii Fits had just become 29. The ever-optimistic shoppers were now even more jovial, assuming that 29 would soon turn into 60, maybe more. Even the guy behind me, who had put on and removed his coat at least three times in 45 minutes, took it off again as if to say, “I’m in it for the long haul as well.” We began to bond as only males who have been sent to Door Buster sales by their wives can do.

“If I get the last one, I promise you can come over and play with it any time,” I said.

He chuckled and said he’d take me up on it.

At 5:59 a.m. the line was filled with the same kind of anticipation that one sees on New Year’s Eve in Times Square as the ball begins its descent. The waiting is nearly over; soon we will all realize why we’ve been standing here for 12 hours in sub-zero temperatures without a bathroom!

At 6:03 a.m. the line began moving. I moved out of the school supplies aisle, around the corner and entered the camping aisle. I noticed a store end cap containing a display of hunting knives. Bad idea, I thought, to let aggressive, over caffeinated Black Thursday shoppers anywhere near weapons.

From down the aisle, out of my line of vision but within earshot, came the first Black Thursday argument. I’m not sure what it was about but a clearly agitated woman kept saying, “I want my receipt and I want it NOW!”

Upon hearing her screams, the TV news crew scrambled into position.

At 6:13 the Meijer employee delivered the worst news I’ve heard since the Cubs signed Milton Bradley: only two Wii Fits remained.

This time I did an exact count of customers in front of me rather than an estimate. There were 11 patrons, none of whom moved in spite of the simple math equation: 11 desperate shoppers – 2 Wii Fits = 9 losers.

It was time to get out of line. My compatriot behind me put on his coat for the umpteenth time and did not take it off. Instead, he followed me down the aisle toward the exit, muttering something about “a perfectly good day wasted.” This was not entirely true, as the sun had not yet risen over the horizon. Technically it was still nighttime.

I exited the store and strode to my car, where my gym bag awaited. On this Thanksgiving morning I was thankful that, in spite of the horrific economy, paying regular price for a Wii Fit wouldn’t break the Schwem bank account.

I turned on the radio. Bruce Springsteen was singing, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Oh, the irony.