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Midnight madness indeed

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I knew as I passed Salmon Run Mall just before midnight Thursday that my chore wasn’t going to be pleasant, and I cursed my procrastination. “Curses! I’ve procrastinated my way right into retail horror!” I thought to myself.

The mall parking lot, at 11:43 p.m. on a holiday night, was full enough that I could see from Arsenal Street cars parked out to the verge of the parking area. As I cruised past Walmart, that lot was full out to Route 3. The Kohl’s lot, even though the store would not open for another 20 minutes, was likewise full. And the Target parking lot, all four acres of it, was brim full of cars. As was the lot for Old Navy, Michaels, Petco et. al.

Just before midnight on a Thursday night, thousands of people were frantically shopping. Frenetically. Desperately. Wantonly. Pick an excessive adjective, it would apply. In the midst of all this was me, a forgetful (or procrastinating) husband, trying to atone for that irritating trait. All I needed, really, was a Target gift certificate. On a normal day, a 10 minute task.

But when I went into the store, after parking somewhere near the town of Hounsfield line, and tried to get into a checkout line to pick up a gift card off a rack, pay for it and abscond from the madness, I found a tape barrier blocking my way. I stopped and looked. Outside the tape were shoppers pushing and shoving and scuttling and generally trying to find their merchandise. Inside the tape was a line of people who had done that already and were ready to check out. It looked like the line to see Santa Claus in the movie “A Christmas Story,” and I felt like Ralphie and Randy as I gazed toward the end.

If you’ve never been in the Watertown Target, the checkout stations are roughly at the south end of the building. All the way at the north end of the building are the food aisles. The line to check out stretched past the cosmetics, past the cleaning supplies, past the pet food and kitty litter, to the food aisles and then up the food aisles to a point I could not see – perhaps all the way to (gasp!) the automotive section. The line, in other words, was several hundred feet long.

A small sob escaped me. Then I had a burst of pure genius: the service desk. Maybe they had gift cards at the service desk. I slithered and sidled and pushed and walked slowly and got to the service desk where, to my rapture, I was told that yes, I could purchase a gift card there. And I did, and I fled into the still-warm night. The ultimate punishment for my procrastination was nowhere near as bad as I feared.

That is my frightening brush with Black-Friday-on-Thursday madness. And my last, I promise. Some of the things I saw are staying with me. For example, as I was walking to the store from my truck, I saw many, many people carrying only a couple of small bags – no big screen TVs, no staggering piles of heavy merchandise, no carts piled high with presents. Who would tolerate that chaos to buy some mascara, a couple of boxes of Keurig cups and a box of dog treats? Another thing I will never forget is that I did not encounter a single smiling person – and I must have seen several hundred in my brief sojourn. I did see some grown men crying and some mature women shoving other peoples’ carts out of their way. But not a smile.

If it’s such a bad experience that it drains the happy out of everyone who does it, why do it? If it makes you go all feral, why go at all? If everyone just shopped normally from now until the middle of December, the crowds would be normal, and manageable – little busier on nights and weekends, little less crowded on weekdays – and stores could offer perhaps less drastic enticements in the form of sales and the same number of people could still have fabulous (and some not so wonderful) presents on Christmas Day.

I am no Luddite. I love my smartphone and I like posting on Twitter and reading about my friends’ and family’s life on Facebook and I think the Internet has changed society in a good way. But there are still some things about the world of 2012 that I don’t think are as good as the days of, say, 1992. One of those things is the period of greed and avarice colloquially known as Black Friday (now perhaps preceded by Grim Gray Thursday). With the amount of discounting stores have to do to compete, and with the cost of staffing stores on Thanksgiving through the night, through the next day and into Friday night, I can’t believe that this trend is really a positive one for merchants.

If people have decided they will spend a fixed figure for Christmas, and given the limits of cash and credit for much of the population, only so much money is available for holiday spending. The stores are going to get that money whether they sell a $400 television for $249.99 on Black Friday or for $349.99 for, say, the first week in December. People will still give gifts, and spend money, whether they spend it all in 24 outrageous hours on Thanksgiving night and the following day, or spread it over the entire coming month. Who knows – maybe they would spend a little more if their trips were spread over several days.

Watertown’s downtown merchants are sponsoring a more sedate, civil sales event on Saturday. Thankfully, they haven’t succumbed to the merchandising pressure of Black Friday. This idea appeals to me, and I hope these merchants are rewarded for their sanity. It would prove to me the world has not gone entirely mad.

And for all the people I didn’t see Thursday night, because they were home with their families or sound asleep in their beds – thank you!

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