So this was my first Black Friday. Black Friday is the term given to the Friday after Thanksgiving in the United States, and the mass of frenzied shopping that has come to be associated with it. Most people have the day off from work, and my hat is off to the canny Founding Fathers who decided that a Thursday holiday would mean a four-day weekend, so what else is there to do but eat leftover turkey and go shopping?

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it is officially the Christmas season. If you go by the store displays, the Christmas season started in September, but they didn’t ask for my permission before putting them up, so they weren’t official. Next year when the stores start unpacking the Christmas decorations, remind them that the Captain has forbidden all their Christmas displays, their Christmas muzak, and their culturally inoffensive wishes of “Happy Holidays!” until after Thanksgiving. Offenders are to be keelhauled if I’m feeling piratical, or tossed out the airlock if I’m in a science fiction mood. And yes, the weather is very nice on my planet, thanks for asking.

So the combination of the post-Thanksgiving day off, the official kick-off of the Christmas season, and retailers smart enough to recognize when money is aching to be spent has come together to create what is often the best shopping day for many stores.

There are some anti-capitalist fruitjobs who clamor for this crass commercialism to go away, so they can spend the day hugging a tree in peace, but nobody listens to them except other tree-hugging, dolphin-kissing Liberals like themselves. They can take their tofurkey leftovers and march on Buy Nothing Day for all they want, or I care. It’s not going to affect much when 64% of Americans say they plan on going shopping anyway.

I have never participated in Black Friday before. More than anything I might have an opportunity to buy for cheap, I had always enjoyed sleeping in on my day off. Then my wife made the mistake of pointing out bf2005.com to me. [I've been framed! Framed I tell you! --TPK] (The website seems to be down now.) This site posted the Black Friday specials way before the stores sent ads to the newspapers. Some of the stores *cough* Kmart and Sears *cough* objected to having their bargains posted online before their time, and demanded that their information be pulled. But it takes me a few days to decide to buy a big-ticket item; in the end I decided to get out of the house based on the bf2005.com ads and not the Thursday ad inserts.

I was in the market to upgrade our computer monitors, since our current ones were getting very dark. I did a quick search for “LCD 17″ to see all the 17″ LCD monitor offers. Hot dog! There were some really good deals! Armed with this information, I rose early and visited some stores to do my part for the American economy. Here are the three stores I visited on Black Friday, in the order of Suck, OK, and Nicely Done.

Circuit City

It’s official: this store is teh suxx0r! If you plan on going to Circuit City for Black Friday 2006, don’t! There’s a long wait at the Circuit City checkout counter even on normal days, but this was terrible. The store was crawling with people at 5:30am, and it was painfully obvious that not all of them got up early enough to shower that morning. I recognize that Circuit City is not responsible for the hygiene habits of its customers, but the only stinky people I encountered on Black Friday were crammed into this one store. There’s nothing like being stacked cheek by jowl with folks who exude the lovely piquant odor of stale sweat. Eau de Bargain Hunter. Well, more like Eww de Bargain Hunter.

The lines at Circuit City moved with all the pep and vim of an arthritic sloth. While there were plenty of checkout registers open, the computers were maxed out–and the time it took for them to print the yards of receipts and rebate offers reminded me of the old 300 baud modem days. I waited in line for 45 minutes, and moved about 12 feet. When it occurred to me to ask the caffeinated red-shirt to check on the monitor I wanted to pick up, he quickly responded that there were three left in stock. The guy directly in front of me wanted one of those models, too, so I quickly scanned the line in front of me and realized that if even two other people of the 40-50 people in line before me wanted that same monitor, I’d be out of luck. The odds against me were very bad, and my nose was unhappy, so I decided to leave.

All in all, it will have to be a cold day in Hell before I willingly walk into Circuit City again, Black Friday or no Black Friday. All my experiences to date in that store have involved slow service and annoyances, and in my discussions with others who had been to Circuit City’s Black Friday offerings in earlier years, I discovered that my experience was pretty much par for the course.

Purchases: none, and unlikely to be any in the future.

OfficeMax

I went into OfficeMax on a whim at the end of my shopping trip, so I was already tired. However, they had a good advertised deal on a 1 GB USB drive, and I really needed one for work. Since the doors had opened three minutes before, I decided to jump into the fray. There was already a line of customers outside waiting to get in. Rather than dealing with customers madly dashing into the store and trampling others in the process, the OfficeMax managers had clearly thought ahead. Everyone was lined up and organized, and one employee was walking up and down the line handing out copies of the sale flyer and maps of the store. They had spent some time doctoring up the flyer with letters and numbers which corresponded to areas on the store map, making finding those items much easier and faster. The big-ticket items in limited supply were numbered, and as I entered the store, I asked for the number of the item I wanted. I was given a ticket for that item, guaranteeing that I would get the item at the register. So my most important question–”will I get this item?”–was answered as soon as I entered the store.

There were no people rushing through the doors at OfficeMax. This suggests the OfficeMax manager understood how critical it is to maintain order on busy days like this. Any videos you may have seen of mobs pushing their way past newly-opened doors and trampling those who fall demonstrate that not all store managers understand the importance of maintaining discipline and control. The OfficeMax checkout line was orderly, but they missed the possibility of placing some last-minute impulse buy items in displays along the checkout line to tempt shoppers. As I reached the end of my wait, I noticed that several OfficeMax clerks were responsible for collecting the tickets and bringing the items to the waiting customers, and another was directing people to checkout counters as soon as they became available. While I actually had an overall longer wait at OfficeMax than at Circuit City, things were much better handled at OfficeMax, so the wait didn’t feel as long.

Purchases: 1 GB USB drive.

Best Buy

OK, my shopping experience at Best Buy on Black Friday was hands-down the best of the lot. There were no stampedes at the door, and lots of items were available for purchase. The flat-screen monitors I had come to buy were placed in large stacks in the aisles for easy access, rather than locked up as they were at Circuit City. Our local Best Buy opened fairly recently, not far from the Circuit City store, and I believe they will do very well if my experience there is any indication. The store had been carefully arranged so the checkout lines could wind back and forth without blocking the throughways, and there were lots of impulse buy items–batteries and cheap DVDs and games–scattered along the path. I didn’t buy any, but they gave me something to look at since I had forgotten to bring my customary paperback along to pass the time. People waiting outside in the rain for the store to open could get free coffee and donuts from high school volunteers who were soliciting donations for their clubs. I’m not sure whether the high school clubs had proposed this idea to Best Buy or whether Best Buy had instigated the idea, but their presence suggested that the store had considered the comfort of the people waiting in line to get into the store.

Best Buy did a great job of making the wait as painless as possible. A Best Buy employee stood at the end of the line with a huge orange balloon, making it easy to point out the end of the line. Best Buy was able to keep things moving along faster than the other two stores because they had 10-12 checkout counters fully staffed, with clerks directing customers to registers as soon as they came free. And while it looked like they had added some temporary counters, their system was fast enough to handle printing the yards of receipts and rebates without noticeable slowdown of the kind I saw at Circuit City.

If I lose my mind again and decide to do my consumer best to make the economy hum next Black Friday, I will carefully examine the sales at Best Buy. If past results are any indication of future performance, the best shopping experience in 2006 will be at Best Buy.

Purchases: a 19″ LCD monitor for the wife and a 17″ LCD monitor for me.

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