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Shopper's Paradise?

On the frontlines at "Black Friday."

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When Black Friday comes

I'm gonna stake my claim. -- "Black Friday," Steely Dan

The anthropologists who decided that women were the "gatherers," based on a shopping analogy, obviously never saw a "Black Friday."

For retailers, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, the start of the holiday shopping season, and the day -- they hope -- that bottom lines go from "the red" into "the black." Black Friday shopping is more than grabbing a shopping cart and wandering the aisles of your favorite mega-retailer. Black Friday shopping means being sleep-deprived, goal-oriented -- and more than a little crazed.

You've probably seen a variation of the scene on television. It's not yet daybreak but a mob of anxious shoppers is outside a store and wants to get in. The newest member of the sales team is sent to ... gulp ... open the doors. (Other employees are still recovering from broken legs and sprained ankles sustained the year before.)

While that's something of an exaggeration, like any good one, it's based on reality. This year, a woman at a Florida Wal-Mart was knocked to the ground, trampled, and then suffered a seizure in a rush to buy a $29 DVD player.

Memphian Cynthia Kinard goes to the after-Thanksgiving sales almost every year and had a similar experience. "One year," she says, "I was at a Target and everybody was in line and when we got up to the door, they just started pushing. A group of big women knocked me up against the door and they had me pinned. I moved real quick; otherwise, my back probably would've been crushed. That scared me, so the next year, I didn't go."

This year, she was back at the Target on Germantown Parkway.

I had never gone to a Black Friday sale before. I'm not much for crowds and never wanted to get my holiday shopping over early. I prefer to spread it out over the four weekends before Christmas, savoring each purchase like a sweet dessert. But someone told me "you have to see [Black Friday] to believe it," so I decided to give it a try. What did I have to lose, after all? A few hours of sleep? A few dollars? Maybe a fight or two?

Flyer writer Bianca Phillips and I head out to Germantown Parkway around 5 a.m. We zip along an almost abandoned Walnut Grove and I am reminded that normal people are not up this early, especially not to shop.

Thirty minutes later we are approaching one of the largest Wal-Marts in the country, its parking lot already teeming with sport utility vehicles. Because the store is open 24 hours a day, there's no traditional opening-of-the-doors ceremony and the early-bird shoppers have taken advantage of that to get started shopping even earlier. It's a different story at the adjoining Target store.

At Target, a line has formed behind a chain of interlocking red carts barricading the entrance. The parking-lot flood lights are off. Two security guards are milling around in matching hats and badges.

"Looks like they've got security so they won't let the women get too out of hand," one of the women behind me says.

The line is jovial. Shoppers -- mostly women, but some men -- clutch sale circulars and point out to their friends what items they're getting and for whom. Most wear jackets with hoods pulled up; they hop up and down and clutch their arms to their chest to keep warm. The smart ones have brought cups -- or, even better, thermos bottles -- of hot coffee.

The first person in line is Memphian Sheila Jordan, who's here with friends from out-of-town. "I got here at 5 a.m.," she says "and the man told me, 'You've got an hour to wait.' I was like, 'And?'" A Black Friday veteran, she says she was at Target last year at 4:30 a.m. and was bumrushed by people behind her trying to get in.

Laurie Graham and her mother, Mary Melvin, are in line behind Jordan. They are also veteran early birds and not scared of the crowd or the line. They say they are here for one reason: incredible bargains. Stores advertise sales from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. or 6 a.m. to noon to get shoppers in early. Special Web sites devoted to Black Friday shopping help the hype by publishing unadvertised deals. Those at the front of the line had all seen on the Internet -- as had I -- that the first 500 customers would get a special 10 percent discount. The first item on all of their lists: an unnamed brand DVD player for $12.99.

I basically rolled out of bed and came to the store, no prep time at all. This, I'm told by those in line, is not the way to do it. I should have a list and know what's on it, and more importantly, I should know where it's located in the store. And there's one more thing ...

"Stay out of our way," jokes Graham.

At 5:35 a.m., a Target employee comes to the door to check the crowd like a nervous performer peeking from behind a stage curtain. He chuckles a little and waves at us. A little while later, one of the security guards checks his watch and then walks toward the door to make sure no one tries to jump the gun. Other Target employees, still straggling into work, survey the line with a sour look, as if to say, "You're the reason I'm up this early."

A few girls are sent out of the store to distribute credit-card applications, telling us we'll get an extra 10 percent off if we sign up. That's certainly the right button to push, but those in the crowd are still hoping for their early-bird discount. "But the first 500 customers get 10 percent off, right?" asks an older man with a cane. The employees respond with a blank look. They don't know anything about it.

The man tells me about "doing" Black Friday at a store in Knoxville the year before last. He started out at the front of the line, he says, but as the doors opened, a bunch of "hillbillies" showed up and jostled him to the back.

I wonder if he was using the cane back then.

At just before 6, a man inside goes to the door. Along the line, everyone stiffens in anticipation. Women hitch their purses under their armpits like soldiers readying their weapons. They take one last look at the advertising brochure, a reminder of where they're going first.

Phil, clad in his red Target polo, steps out into the cold and addresses the crowd. He's middle-aged and could easily pass for a school principal. "When we open the doors, there will be no running," he says, adding an extra "no running" for emphasis. "I've been in this business for many years and I've seen a lot of people do stupid things. They've broken legs, they've tripped and gotten hurt. So please walk and be orderly."

Someone asks about the 10-percent-off special and he tells them it's not a Target thing, just an Internet hoax. They seem let down, but when he reiterates about walking one last time, several people in the line shout, "Yes, sir."

Then suddenly the doors are officially open. Phil and the security guards stand there, watching like hawks, and everyone starts to move, almost cautiously, over the threshold. We move fast, but faux slow, like a jaunty game of musical chairs. Only there's more at stake than losing your seat.

The hunt is on.

As soon as we're in the store, it seems there are shoppers everywhere. The electronics department is instantly packed, as is the toy department. There's a staff person on every toy aisle ready to assist. Because we didn't prepare, Bianca and I just sort of mill around, shopping for items the regular way.

At 6:20 a.m., I pull out my cell phone and call my mom. "Hey, what size shirt does Dad wear?" She does not seem happy to hear from me. This is when it hits me that it is still early in the morning. With all the bustle and brightness in Target, it was like the casino effect: I had lost all sense of time.

We decide to pay for our purchases ("You didn't get much," a woman remarks to Bianca, her own cart filled to the brim with toys) and head on out, blinded by the rising sun.

At the nearby Wal-mart, the ravages of Black Friday are a little easier to spot. Door alarms are continuously beeping and an employee is standing at the door checking receipts for larger items. A near-empty rack of Christmas cookies stands at the front of the store. A group of employees is having a conversation about a fight that broke out earlier, the culmination of which was a woman getting hit in the head with a can of beans. (We tried to get more information but were rebuffed.)

The Target was organized chaos but the Wal-Mart is just plain chaos. There are baskets of unshelved merchandise in the middle of aisles and stacked overhead. Employees tell us that Wal-Mart has just run out of DVD players but has wonderful diamond tennis bracelets left.

Bianca and I get separated by an ill-fated bathroom trip. Unfortunately, the bathrooms are located near electronics and layaway, possibly the second- and third-busiest sections of the store -- after toys. A few minutes later, I spot Bianca about 50 yards away, peeking down aisles. Because yelling won't work, I start to weave in between people and shopping baskets, saying "excuse me" as I go. It doesn't matter. I get bumped, jostled, or hit by no less than three baskets.

I lose my patience in the toy aisle. We wanted to go check out the pregnant Barbie (with painted-on wedding ring, natch) and ended up in front of a display of all sorts of urban-inspired dolls: Bratz, Flavas, and even Barbie herself. And then I hear a voice to my right: "Excuse me, could you move?"

A woman with a huge basket is trying to get through, but there's a ladder (with an employee perched on it) behind me, Bianca to the left of me, and another woman with a full basket on her other side, coming in the opposite direction.

"Where exactly do you want me to go?" I grumble to myself and move halfway down the aisle to the first empty spot I find. Then the woman on Bianca's side asks the employee to move the ladder as she and her two baskets -- one heaped with toys and the other with computer equipment -- need to get by. We leave the section, noting that almost all the kids' bicycles are gone and that in other aisles toys have been knocked into piles on the floor. No wonder people have resorted to cans of beans as weapons. It's a madhouse.

Our arms aching -- not from defending our purchases but simply from carrying them around -- we make our way to the check-out. The sun is bright in the morning sky and the parking lot is just as full as it was when we came in. As we leave the war zone, I have to admit, despite not getting any sensational deals or into any real fights, I thought it was kind of fun. But next year I'm sleeping in. n

E-mail: cashiola@memphisflyer.com

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