Is this the year that American cultural touchstone "Black Friday" finally becomes more trouble than it's worth? Despite reports of people lining up at the St. Pete Best Buy as early as last Friday, there's a serious undercurrent of discontent both from bargain shoppers and store employees, pissed that the ever earlier store openings (this year starting at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving night — thanks, Walmart) are cutting into turkey time with the family. Some of the rank and file have begun to protest, including Tampa Best Buy Geek Squad tech Rick Melaragni, who floated a petition on change.org that has attracted over 13,000 signatures so far.
"It's miserable. Absolutely miserable." This is Lauren Copeland, a weary vet of the retail wars who began her career in retail 15 years ago at the Auntie Anne'’s Pretzels at Pittsburgh International Airport ("You think the mall's bad? Airport's tenfold."). Since then, she's staffed FYEs and Old Navys (among others) locally and in the Northeast, and set up Christmas displays and marked down merch in three Bay area malls (Countryside, University and Citrus Park). She's now the store manager of a coffee bar in Tampa. She has seen it all and been run over in the process.
"I got hit by two different cars walking into Countryside Mall in one day in one trip," she says of a past holiday shopping season. "And neither of them stopped. The first one just bumped me and the second one really got me in the side of the leg, and then they both flicked me off, screamed something and drove off in a fury. ...I won the lottery that day."
Lauren has seen many a Black Friday, and wearily recounts the usual routine. Up before dawn, at the store by 3 a.m. for final preparations, then working until she's on the verge of tears and has to literally run to her car. Twelve-hour shifts are the norm during the holiday shopping season, and she laughs when I ask if she ever gets a day off. The pace continues unabated through January, when illness begins to set in among both employees and customers (it's no surprise that the ramp-up of flu diagnoses coincides with a period when people congregate in tight spaces repeatedly touching the same items).
In her time behind the counter, Lauren has seen fistfights in line and had an irate customer at University Mall in Tampa take a swing at her before being subdued by customers and dragged out by security. More common are customers who think they're being jobbed by the store because of misplaced merchandise. "'That sign said it was Buy One, Get One. Why isn't it Buy One, Get One?' And I'm like, because your kid walked over and put something on the shelf that didn't belong there. And then you take a camera phone picture of it and want me to honor it? It doesn't work that way."
Despite it all, Lauren maintains a positive attitude about holiday crunch time, calling it a "fun challenge, because all you do is work." And for the most part, the customers are all right. "It really is a whole thing about working together," she says. "The retail spaces know what they're in for, and ...we may not be pleased as punch to be here all the time during holiday, but we're going to work with you, because it's all for a good reason. We're all just spreading joy and love, so why can't we just do that? Nobody has to get nasty."
Lauren's best advice for prospective Black Friday shoppers: Unless you're a crazy tent-outside-of-Best-Buy person, ignore the hype and go back to bed. Those "doorbusters" you've seen advertised will be long gone by the time you get into the store, but the majority of the sale items will still be there for a while. "Whatever they're going to have on sale they'll have it all day," she says of the major retailers. "No store is going to run out of basic inventory just because it's on sale. They're going to have enough."