Friday, November 25, 2011

Joining the club

I joined a not-so-exclusive club late Thursday night/early Friday morning. I went shopping.

The so-called "Black Friday" madness has certainly come into its own during the past few years. The starting times have gotten earlier and earlier in that time, to the point where a 6 a.m. opening seems almost quaint. But the stores took it up a notch this year. Some stores actually were opened on Thanksgiving Day, while others decided to unlock the doors at midnight or so.

I've never taken part in this odd tradition. I'm never up early enough, for one thing, often due to work. And while I like to save money as well as the next fellow, usually I figure such purchases can wait -- especially when your holiday shopping list in incredibly small.

This time, though, a few of the stars lined up correctly. I got out of work at 11:50 p.m., and a Kohl's wasn't very far out of my way while driving home. Besides, I had been mailed a coupon good for 15 percent off on all purchases. I didn't really need anything, but I figured the scene would be worth a visit.

I got to the store about 12:10 p.m. The parking lot was more crowded than I've ever seen it; granted, I usually go there at 1 on a weekday so by my personal standards I'm surprised the store is still in business. (What? People shop at night and on weekends?)

When I got inside, a couple of sights struck me. One, I saw shopping carts that already had been filled up. Remember, it's now about 12:11, so someone had to work really, really fast. Then I saw people on their phones, apparently coordinating purchases with spouses in other locations. If the military had used such precision in its operations, we might have been out of Iraq five years ago.

I strolled around and saw that pants were marked down $10, and the coupon added another $7 discount. OK, I can always use another pair of pants in the drawer. I got in the line that resembled a snake as it went through the store. I got in the back and slowly edged along. Naturally, I turned on my stop watch at the beginning -- in comes from running, I think -- and got to the cashier after 12 minutes. Not bad, considering.

Before cashing out and boosting the economy, I talked to the woman who was directing traffic as she sent shoppers to the next available register. I asked her when her shift ended, and she said 8:30 a.m. In other words, an all-nighter.

Then she added, "I'm a seasonal hire. So this is my first night on the job."

Wow. Welcome to the world of retail.

I felt a little torn by the whole visit. As someone who believes in free markets, part of me says that stores should be able to open anytime they like. If they think they can make more money this way, fine.

Still, it feels like we're losing something in terms of quality of life. It was always nice to see the tranquil feeling that comes while seeing everything closed on Thanksgiving or around Christmas. While the shoppers have the choice to participate in the madness, the employees don't. Can you imagine starting a job that way?

Sounds like the free-marketers are winning this one, though. Once you knock down the wall, it ain't going back up.

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