Philadelphia is the birthplace of our democracy, the city where our forefathers crafted the documents that form the architecture of our government. But few know that Philadelphia is also the birthplace of the term "Black Friday." The phrase has been in use in Philly since 1961, where it was coined in response to the overwhelming pedestrian and vehicle traffic that resulted from thousands of shoppers hitting stores on the day after Thanksgiving.
It has since become shorthand for the day when retailers go into profitability for the year, i.e., "in the black." And the day when retail capitalism goes into holiday overdrive. Stores used to open at 6 a.m. on Black Friday, then 5 a.m., then 4 a.m. Now many stores open at midnight on Thursday.
It's overhyped and overrated, but it's coming, and whether you choose to avoid it or embrace it, the Flyer's got you covered. Our staff has come up with strategies to cope — stores where you won't have to camp in a parking lot, great places to just go eat and drink and avoid it all (see "The D-List," p. 43) — and we also have survival strategies (should you decide to take the plunge), war stories, and more. Enjoy. — Bruce VanWyngarden
If crowds, competition, or corporations aren't on your holiday wish list, then the traditional Black Friday is probably not for you. You may want to skip the insanity and hit the back roads to the smaller, local retailers. You probably won't find that barn-sized flat-screen TV or the "must-have" toy, but there's plenty to be found if you want to shop for unique gifts and keep your money close to home. The National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts Americans will spend $602.1 billion this year during the holiday months of November and December. That figure is just north of the 2012 gross domestic product of Saudi Arabia ($597 billion).
Economists say more money stays in local economies if it's spent with a local business. A 2010 economic impact study from the University of Memphis said every dollar spent with a local business in Memphis has a $1.70 economic impact here.
Last year, nearly 140 million Americans shopped on Black Friday weekend and spent about $60 billion, according to the NRF. Most of that money was spent in department stores and online. With door-buster sales and multi-million-dollar ad campaigns (that now begin before the Halloween candy is all gone), major retailers such as Walmart, Target, and others win the lion's share of holiday spending each year.
But small businesses are fighting for their piece of the pie with a national campaign of their own called Small Business Saturday. Buoyed with national support from the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) and American Express, Small Business Saturday has earned national brand recognition and brought $5.6 billion in spending to small businesses last year, according to NFIB data.
The campaign is simple: Shop on the Saturday after Black Friday at small businesses in your community. American Express gives cardholders special deals on Small Business Saturday if they use the card and shop with a registered store.
If you're not sure where to get started with your local Memphis shopping, here are three sure-fire honey holes:
South Main has become a Memphis fashion destination. It may be anchored by national retailer American Apparel, but it's now home to lots of local shops.
K'PreSha Boutique (323 South Main) offers styles for men and women and has welcomed smaller shops to share their space on Small Business Saturday. Sachë (525 South Main) is an edgy boutique featuring a host of Memphis T-shirt designs, including the Tony Allen-inspired "Grindfather" shirt. Hoot + Louise (109 G.E. Patterson) has vintage, new, and handmade apparel and accessories and retro home goods such as vintage ashtrays and salt and pepper shakers.
Adding to the mix this year is Crazy Beautiful. The fashion-forward boutique's permanent home is on Walker, close to the University of Memphis campus. Owner Eryka Smith opened the temporary pop-up shop at 387 South Main for RiverArtsFest in October but decided to stay through the holidays.
An explosion of new businesses in newly renovated spaces has transformed Overton Square into a hub for bars and restaurants, but retailers have flocked there, too, looking for the wining and dining foot traffic to bring shoppers through the door.
The Attic (2121 Madison) opened earlier this year with a collection of young, trendy clothes for men and women. Breakaway Running broke away from its Union location for new digs in Overton Square (2109 Madison) to offer a selection of athletic gear aimed at runners. Sew Memphis moved from Midtown this year to 2075 Madison and carries fabric, thread, needles, and more.
As a sort of reprise to last year's MemShop at Overton Square, the Memphis Melange Etsy Team and Indie Style Market will open their Handmade Christmas Popup Shop (2090 Trimble) on Black Friday and will run it until December 29th. The shop will feature local jewelry, clothes, photography, candy, fragrances, art, and more.
The historically hip Midtown neighborhood and entertainment district is likely best known for its food and drink, but Cooper-Young has a diverse shopping scene, from the nationally known Urban Outfitters (2151 Central) to the local-as-it-gets Goner Records (2152 Young).
Kindred Spirit Style (2172 Young) is handbag central, but the shop also offers bath oils and soaps, Christmas ornaments, and more. Allie Cat Arts (961 S. Cooper) is a "funky, eclectic" art gallery and shop with fine art, pottery, glass, sculpture, and jewelry. Burke's, one of the country's oldest independently owned book stores, moved to Cooper-Young several years ago. The store always has a great holiday-themed front window display.
A sure-shot shopping trip in Cooper-Young may actually take place closer to Cooper and Central. Park your car and walk to clothiers Urban Outfitters, Wish and Langford Market, then to Toad Hall or Palladio for antiques.
Let me confess that for a spell of years I had some retail experience here in River City — working as a shoe dog at the now-defunct Thalhimers Department Store at the erstwhile Mall of Memphis, an edifice in Southeast Memphis now razed to the ground as history and commercial fashion have passed it by. It was something I did during a freelancing time between some political/governmental work in Washington and the resumption of a full-time journalism career here in Memphis. Don't ask. We all have to undergo some ... call it character-building.
And that, frankly, is putting the best face on retail sales. You do learn some things about yourself and about life at large and never more so than on a Black Friday.
Humility, for one thing. Are you one of those who gallantly professes a willingness to merely hew the wood and draw the water? Go to work on a shoe floor — or in any retail space on a big sale day. That'll cure you.
The most obvious fact of such service is to be made aware of your utter insignificance in the scheme of things — save as a vehicle, and a none-too-appreciated one at that, for others' wants and needs. Not that you don't occasionally experience courtesy — and sometimes more — in the service of a customer. But rudeness is more common, and indifference as to who you are is the norm as you muscle your way through the grasping crowds and hustle back and forth between stockroom and sales floor, sometimes bearing the goods and sometimes not.
In the latter all-too-frequent case — merchandise is finite and does run out, after all — it is not uncommon to have to suffer a frustrated buyer's abuse. And forget this at your peril: The customer is, indeed, Always Right. At Thalhimers, the edict was clear: Do not say no to any customer seeking to return an item for credit. Never mind if it's a pair of shoes that's worn through from years of wear. Never mind if it wasn't purchased at your store or in your country or even in your century. Mark Greaney, the writer of thrillers, was a colleague at the time, and he and I used to joke about what we'd do if somebody came in with a broken tree branch and said, "I want my money back for this shoe!"
Everybody in the sales force I worked with was on commission, and, if there was a saving grace to the experience, it was an education as to how cutthroat competition and comradely relations could routinely coexist. For hours upon exhausting hours, the focused salespeople, moving at breakneck speed, could negotiate the narrow aisles of stockroom and sales floor and weave around and about each other, never colliding, never indulging in any absurd Alphonse-and-Gaston stops and starts. Showing no mercy, giving no quarter, and yet — getting along. Ah! My country, 'tis of thee!
Celebrate it or not, but Black Friday is, on both the buying and the selling ends, the American system in its most concentrated form.
Black Friday should be celebrated as the most American of American holidays with shopping-related gifts chosen to make us better and more aggressive shoppers, to give us an edge over the competition. Here are my top five suggestions for the bargain hunter in your life.
1) The Tocky Rolling Alarm Clock: If you want to land the biggest Black Friday catches, you're going to have to wake up earlier and angrier than the competition. The Tocky ensures you'll never hit "snooze" again. When this obnoxiously loud alarm clock goes off, it rolls off your nightstand onto to the floor and spins away, ringing incessantly, forcing even the sleepiest heads to leap out of bed in hot pursuit. It's a hunter's clock, designed to wake the killer instinct. $50
2) Death Wish Coffee: Once your favorite shopper is awake and angry, he or she will want a nice, hot, steaming cup of joe to become more alert. I recommend Death Wish Coffee, which has about 520 mg of caffeine in every 12-ounce cup, making it roughly twice as powerful as anything you'll get at Starbucks. How powerful is Death Wish? So powerful the entire back side of the package is a warning label. $19.95/pound
3) The Stun Master: This combination taser/flashlight looks like a tube of lipstick but is packed with 950,000 volts of twitching agony to dispense to those who cross you — or just miff you, for that matter. Although its use may result in a nasty lawsuit and possible incarceration, this easily concealed pain-dispenser pretty much guarantees that you will win all fights over limited-quantity sales items. $15.98
4) The EW-36 Mobility Scooter: At full power, this baby can travel at 18 miles per hour, making it the fastest set of wheels they'll let you drive through the front doors of Walmart. Prices start at $1,999. Leave other shoppers in the dust. Or hell, run 'em over. Who are they to you, anyway?
5) The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand: In this season of giving, there are some of you who may be reluctant to get jacked-up on coffee and shock the crap out of your fellow man or run them down on an uncommonly powerful mobility scooter just to save a couple of bucks on a flat-screen TV. This 1964 collection of essays from Rand's Objectivist Newsletter will help to break you of all that nasty altruism. Prices vary. $5.99 on Kindle
I journeyed deep into the heart of Wolfchase Galleria to ask employees to tell me entertaining stories involving customers on Black Friday. They all asked to remain anonymous.
An employee from Gymboree:
"The clothes were 50 percent off until 3 a.m. At 3 a.m., it changed to 30 percent. This guy came to the register, and he wanted to use a coupon that he couldn't use on Black Friday. Because I told him no, he decided that he was going to call the corporate office. But because it was 2:30 a.m., he couldn't get in touch with them.
"By the time he came back to the register, it was past 3 a.m., and I told him he could get the stuff behind the register for the 50 percent off. He kept trying to add more stuff to it. I told him that that stuff would be 20 percent off or 30 percent off. He got mad and told me what I was going to do for him, and I told him I wasn't going to do it. I told him that he needed to get back in line, because he had cut in front of a lot of people. He said okay and asked, 'Do you have a trash can?' And as he was asking, he put his gum in my hand.
"I can't tell you what I did after that."
An employee from Victoria's Secret:
"Customers have always been very rowdy; real anxious to get in. We can't get the doors open fast enough. We don't have an electronic door, so we have to [insert] our keys to let the gate up. Customers are ducking under the gate before we can get it all the way up. They're waiting outside before the store even opens. They're camping outside all night. They've made their pallets. They've got their tents. It's crazy."
An employee from Wet Seal:
"There was a long line, and a customer was waiting to check out. Another customer came from the back of the store with their items and instead of going to the end of the line, they came up to the front to get checked out immediately. That customer ended up getting into a heated argument with the person already standing at the register. We had to calm the situation down and explain the obvious to the customer: 'The other person was here first, so we'll ring them up and you have to go to the end of the line.' They just wanted to hurry up and get their stuff."
An employee from Macy's:
"It gets intense and swamped. When the store first opens, it's just crazy. It'll just be a big rush of people. I always like the excitement of it when it opens, because they burst in with their sales ads. They come from all three entrances into the store. They've got their coffee in their hands, and they're ready to go. And these shoppers will shop all day and night. I always like to sit back and watch where they're going. It's a rush to me, just to see them come in."