Aisle-bumping, line-cutting, and parking lot rudeness is to be expected on Black Friday, the annual post-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza. This year's event, however, saw more mayhem than usual as throngs of competitive shoppers tussled and growled over waffle irons and Xboxes, with altercations turning violent in at least seven states.
As in years past, stories of "competitive shopping" gone bad abounded, but with a new edge.
In Los Angeles, a woman pepper-sprayed at least 20 fellow shoppers to save some money on an Xbox console, paying up and getting out before cops arrived. In Ohio and Michigan, women "came out swinging" over discounted bath towels. The results were at times serious, with several shootings reported and one confrontation ending with a grandfather lying bloodied and unconscious.
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With economic growth still moribund and unemployment uncomfortably close to double digits, the growth in Black Friday mayhem hints at both desperation and hope on the part of corporations and consumers looking to bust out of the pseudo-recession and salvage Christmas. Stores pushing start times up to midnight for the first time helped to dial up the emotions and the stress, which inevitably find occasional outlets in shoving and screaming.
"People are putting in all this effort getting up early, cutting out coupons ... then they get there and they find out the goods are gone because they are out of stock or because there were not very many to begin," Sharron Lennon tells TheStreet.com website. "They are going to be angry, and some of them might be the ones who engage in the consumer misbehavior."
Cue YouTube. One short clip depicts a huddle of shoppers climbing over each other, tossing around boxes of a $2 waffle iron, with, as Reuters reports, "one woman seemingly unaware that her pants were sliding down her backside."
For some, such scenes prompt existential musings about the state of humanity.
"There is a point in our culture beyond which camp and kitsch no longer make the least ironic sense, where consumerism loses its last mooring to civilization, where even seemingly legitimate protest devolves into farce. That point is Black Friday," writes Andrew Leonard in Salon.
But the focus on snippets of consumer deviance doesn't quite give the event a fair shake.
Only eight percent of people in an ebates.com poll said they cut in line, for example, and given that 158 million people said they were heading out on Black Friday – compared to 138 million people last year – the sheer crush of humanity has only grown as retailers like Wal-Mart and Kohl's extended the start hour to 12:01 Friday morning, quite a stretch from when 6 a.m. starting times were seen as outrageous.
Indeed, such mass shopping events don't just appeal to baser instincts, but primal desires.
"We love to exchange things with people. It comes from our ancestral past," Dr. Peter Whybrow, author of "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough," told TheStreet writer Joe Mont. "When we are faced with something really exciting and immediate, we go for it. It's very difficult to control and the merchants know that."
The backdrop to the pandemonium is anemic economic growth. Retailers said they expected a 3 percent bump in sales this year, but not the 5 percent the big box stores saw last year.
Meanwhile, scenes of Black Friday tragedy have become a B-roll to the recession and its aftermath, a phenomenon firmly vaulted into the collective conscious when a person died after getting trampled by a throng trying to get into a Valley Stream, NY, Wal-Mart on Black Friday 2008.
Given the growth of Cyber Monday, the introduction last year of Small Business Saturday – an American Express promotion backed by President Obama – and added hours on Black Friday, shoppers told pollsters this week that they plan to spend four more hours shopping this year than last, but a third of those say they'll spend less money than in the past.
All in all, one in four Americans melted into the throngs on Friday, the vast majority on a good-natured, even fun, hunt for savings. But as usual, the unusual became news, and fodder for societal reflection.
For YouTube aficionados, Black Friday mayhem has become its own annual event. One popular video shows two women throwing punches over a table of hand towels in Oregon, Ohio. "They were fighting over bath towels on sale for $1.88, as ridiculous as that sounds," Police Sergeant Jason Druckenmiller told Reuters.
Ridiculous may be in the eye of the beholder, however.
Yes, "for the shopaholics out there, it's the equivalent of Mardi Gras," Bob Robicheaux, a marketing professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, tells the Birmingham News. "Once you get that emotional predisposition to go buy something, the floodgates open and people sort of lose their control."
On the other hand: While Wal-Mart seemed to be particularly hard-hit by stories of consumer misbehavior, it doesn't appear to have hurt the Bentonville, Ark. retailer's bottom line. Wal-Mart stocks rose slightly after Black Friday, with shares rising to $56.89 in late trading.
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