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The nightmare before Christmas: Scenes from Black Friday at Walmart

The parking lot at Walmart is jammed with cars when we arrive. So are the side streets nearby and so are the grassy vacant lots between the streets out here in the industrial eastern fringes of Helena, Montana. It’s around 8pm on the fourth Thursday in November, and the occasion is the opening of an annual sale called, now somewhat inaccurately, Black Friday.

“I can’t believe it, but you were right about this,” says my brother, shaking his head, as we pass under big banks of surveillance cameras and approach the front door. “You’ll just be wandering around freezing your ass off in an empty parking lot,” he said a couple hours ago, but he came with me anyway to see.

There’s an ambulance idling by the curb out front, waiting to aid those injured in the plastic feeding frenzy. Seem insane yet, or maybe terrifying? No? Let’s continue on inside….

“I’m not sure I can handle this right now,” he mutters as we pass through the automatic doors and the entranceway which forces us into closer quarters with the herd of shoppers—the chute into the slaughterhouse.

2008: “Worker dies at Long Island Wal-Mart after being trampled in Black Friday Stampede.” (New York Daily News, 11/28/2008)

2011: “LOS ANGELES (AP)—A woman trying to improve her chance to buy cheap electronics at a Walmart in a wealthy suburb spewed pepper spray on a crowd of shoppers and 20 people suffered minor injuries…”

(YahooNews, 11/25/2011)

2012: “2 shot at Florida Walmart over parking space, police say.”

(Fox News, 11/23/2012)

News clips from Black Fridays past and present….

The store is completely packed with people moving as fast in one direction as possible amid the chaotic clusters of other shoppers. The scene here isn’t quite what I’d built up in my mind over years of hearing about “Black Friday,” usually from a distance of at least 80 miles from the nearest Walmart or mall. It’s not quite what I had patched together from internet headlines, rumors, and my mom’s disgusted polemics: mile long lines outside the doors at midnight, shattered glass, and fatally trampled shoppers. No, this year Walmart and the other Black Friday hotspots—Target, Best Buy, etc.—have made some changes that reduce the risk of such inconveniences. After all, deaths and broken glass, fights and shootings, just aren’t good PR for the busiest shopping day of the year—a day that many retailers count on to produce enough profits to make up for any losses in other quarters. A trampled body just brings the sick absurdity and the deranged logic of the event right out front for everyone to see. Apparently not enough to stop a surging human herd, a trampled body just might be enough to raise troubling questions to be pondered in dark hours in the days and months following the death. And these questions just aren’t the type that it is profitable or safe, for places like Walmart, to have people contemplating.

So this year, Walmart has staggered sales out at two-hour intervals, assumedly to reduce the number of people in the store at one time. From the panicked climax of the midnight sale, Walmart has sought to create several, more contained climaxes.

Perhaps the most significant change this year, though, is Walmart’s decision to kick off its first “Black Friday” sale at 8pm on Thanksgiving Day.

Beginning “Black Friday” on Thanksgiving Thursday is not completely new. In 2010, Toys ‘R’ Us began its Black Friday sales at 10pm on Thanksgiving, and Walmart and many other stores did the same in 2011. Really, the 8pm sales, which were adopted by many other retailers, are just the next logical step towards the conclusion that Black Friday has always aimed at: that Thanksgiving and Black Friday become the same event, that Black Friday become an accepted and celebrated day in the long list of holidays that begins with Thanksgiving and marches through Christmas toward New Years, that a family shopping spree become as normal and expected as a big family dinner…

…It’s a shopping shit show for the whole family! Bring Grandma and Grandpa, husband and wife! Bring the kids, boyfriend, girlfriend! It’s a family activity, a chance to spend some quality time together…

…Slowly and gently, they’re sticking this thing deeper and deeper, toward the heart of the holidays (if they ever had one, which is easy to doubt these days), as a killer doctor might ease the poison-bearing needle into the vein of a sleeping patient—with any luck, the victim will never even wake up. At any rate, it will be too late.

My brother and I split up, and I wander up and down the aisles of the vast store, overwhelmed, scribbling wild notes in my notebook, but too confused to know what I’m looking for.

The electronics department is mobbed, particularly around the iPod/iPad section—the volume increases exponentially as I approach the area. “I want a Nook for ninety bucks,” says a middle-aged woman to explain why she is spending her night waiting in line in the electronics department at Walmart. She shrugs. “I’m with my daughter and my son-in-law,” the woman says. “We had dinner and came down together… It’s something you can do as a family. Why not get the best deals you can?”

A wall of flat screen TVs booms out in creepy unison: “Find the perfect gift for everyone on your list…sales on electronics starting at 10 o’clock. And don’t forget to come back tomorrow at 5am for even more great prices!” I am jostled from my trance by a woman pushing through the crowd to get her sick friend into some open air.

The crowd the two women have just forced their way out of is the line for a particular flat screen TV, the name of which I have failed to note and don’t remember. It is probably the most popular sale item in the store, and the line for this TV stretches hundreds of yards. It wraps itself up and down the aisles of the electronics department, around racks of clothes and past shelves of socks, and keeps going. These women were nearing the end of the long gauntlet when one was overwhelmed by dizziness.

Another woman in the tv line is here looking for Christmas presents. She came down with her family, she says, gesturing widely with her hands to indicate that they are spread out around the store. I ask her if this shopping night makes the holiday better. “By buying presents they want, yeah” she says, but “we had to hurry dinner…”

Another woman waiting in line next to us interjects: “Next year we won’t even have Thanksgiving…just go shopping,” she says bitterly.

“Makes Thanksgiving almost not a real holiday,” says the first woman, “just a shopping day.”

I head toward the food section of the store but can’t seem to escape the hysteria that has grown up around the electronics department: the line for that certain tv stretches back past a wall of cereal and cans of diced tomatoes, almost to the coolers of giant turkeys wrapped in white plastic that line the eastern wall. Tonight, there were no crowds waiting in the icy parking lot for the doors to open—not here, where the doors never close and the bright fluorescent lights never turn off. Instead lines have formed around particular sale items and the counters that sell them.

Purchasing the most popular Black Friday products is not as easy as it may sound. It takes endurance, patience, and planning. And taking advantage of multiple deals at once takes complicated family coordination.

First of all, you’ve got to know where the product you want is located, so don’t forget your special Walmart “map to Black Friday Savings!” Print out a copy at or download it to your smart phone for on-the-go access! Or, if you forget, you can pick up a copy at the door when you arrive, but, let’s be honest, by that point you’ve lost your competitive edge.

Next, you’ve got to commit yourself to the waiting. Better show up several hours early, stake out your spot. The really serious sale shoppers are impressively dedicated; they are in it for the long haul. Tonight at Walmart, many have brought folding chairs, bottles of water, pillows, and set up camp in the aisles. Who knows how long some of them have been here? Hours? All day?

I can’t help but wonder to what other causes would people commit such effort and thought?

Walmart’s plan to open its first sale at 8pm on Thanksgiving—a plan that insured that many employees would be forced to work through the holiday—sparked widespread calls for a Black Friday strike. The union-backed group OUR Walmart hoped a strike on this critical shopping day would draw attention to the low wages and benefits, bad working conditions, and bad schedules at Walmart. In several cities across the country, Walmart workers walked off the job at 8pm and set up picket lines outside. But not here, not in Helena, Montana. Here, the grapes of wrath have not yet ripened to a dangerous weight, and whatever anger resulted from being forced to work through Thanksgiving was expressed only as a kind of hidden resentment: as complaints exchanged in angry whispers between disgruntled employees behind the managers back; as unauthorized, anonymous comments to a kid-journalist stumbling bleary-eyed through the crowded aisles doing off-the-cuff interviews; as a general silent or quiet-grumbling surliness toward customers…

“If I didn’t work here I’d be nowhere near here,” a worker at the sporting goods counter mutters at a customer as I walk by.

“They asked everyone who possibly could to work tonight,” says a young employee named Josh; “some people are complaining about it.” He looks bored too—bored and tired, standing guard, arms folded, at the end on an aisle. “You know, it’s pretty shitty. I’d rather be home with my newborn baby. It’s my normal day off.” He pauses. “But, hey, I like the extra pay.”

That seems to be the common sentiment of the night among both shoppers and employees: it’s pretty shitty but I like the extra money, the extra savings, the extra pay.

It turns out, though, that even talking to me at all is a small act of defiance because employees have been instructed not to talk to any kind of media. Most are willing to do an interview anyway, but the way they glance around before they talk is an indication that they aren’t supposed to. Others are more obedient:

“Hi, I’m a journalist…could I ask you a couple questions?”

“Well, hold on, I think you have to talk to a manager.”

“No, no I want to talk to you—”

“No. I have to ask…”

She ignores me and waits for a blue-vest to arrive. He shows up soon; his nametag says “Myles” and he introduces himself as a manager or supervisor or something like that. Combed hair and glasses, mild-mannered Myles is all smiles and exaggerated politeness—the grinning PR face of Walmart, here to throw me out of the store.

He shakes my hand; “What can I do for you?” he asks.

“Well, I was just trying to do some interviews with these employees—”

He’s got his response prepared and jumps in as I finish my sentence: “We actually can’t allow you to be in here doing interviews with employees or customers.”

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“It’s a distraction.”

“A distraction from what? From buying—” I start to ask, but he cuts in.

“As you can see, our employees are all very busy helping customers.”

“Right, uh, but what about those back there who are just kinda hanging out?” I ask.

“Well, even they are busy…guarding stuff.” He glances down at my notebook, trying to maintain his phony flashing smile, but my constant scribbling is beginning to make him nervous.

“We can’t make exceptions, not even for nice guys like you,” he says, “so if you don’t stop, I’m afraid we’re going to have to escort you out.” I nod, give him a nice stupid smile, and walk away.

On my way home, I laugh at myself for letting Black Friday drag me away from my Thanksgiving night; just like everyone else, I spent the evening at Walmart, no matter what I intended. Back at home in the living room, my brother and I get into an argument about my project.

“I saw people I know in there,” he says. “I think it’s pretentious to walk around laughing at people.”

I won’t get into it here, how I defended myself and all. But what he said made me think: what am I trying to get out of this? What’s my point? Either he misunderstands my project or I do. I was never intending to go out and mock people, as if I’ve risen above it all or something; the point was to observe the Black Friday spectacle, to toss myself into the most manic heart of American consumerism. It was supposed to be about observing a social phenomenon, trying to understand it, and, yes, denouncing it with as much fire as I decided was necessary. Has my piece, in the end, descended into snobbish mockery or is it getting at something more than that? Well, now that I’ve muddied the waters with a thousand questions, I’ll offer nothing helpful…

Through the late ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s—through most of his life, I guess—Hunter S. Thompson obsessed himself with the death of the “American Dream.” He wrote about it at length, and on numerous occasions declared that the American Dream was “totally fucked.” He’s six or seven years dead now; it’s 2012, and here I am, hunched and unable to write, staring down at pages of barely legible notes, interviews, and Walmart sale brochures as the countdown to Christmas creeps into single digits. So what the hell am I sitting here looking at? Something goes marching on, year after year, dead-eyed and clueless; like a zombie, it moves through the motions because it knows nothing else… What but a people lost in pursuit of a lifestyle the frills of which they can no longer afford? Which wouldn’t, they don’t realize, bring fulfillment even if they could afford them. And which they sense, I think, they will never be able to afford again. Lacking any other vision, they search for happiness in the same place as their parents and grandparents: the well-stocked aisles of a retail store.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, more angles to explore…but it’s time to kill this monstrous piece of writing before it grows any more and loses any more of its clarity.

Joseph Bullington is a student of political economy and journalism at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He grew up in Montana where he became interested in radical politics, rebellion, and writing, and he fled to Olympia in 2011 to pursue these interests.


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