JANESVILLE

I woke up at 5:30 a.m. Friday to the dulcet tones of Bixby, the artificial intelligence lady who lives inside my phone.

“Hey … There …” Bixby said in her usual, emotionless monotone. “It’s Black Friday today.”

Just like that, I was in the shower, slapping myself in the face and purposely stinging my eyes with Old Spice shower gel to wake myself up.

By early Friday, I already was 12 hours late to the start of many retailers’ Black Friday events. That meant I was late to make good on the following marching orders—the first from my editors at The Gazette, the second from my wife:

“Catch the early (and we mean

  1. early!) crowds at the local stores and find us the zeitgeist-iest, zippiest thing there is about this year’s Black Friday—the one thing that’s going to blow a winter-fresh gale of new life into this year’s local media coverage of the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year That Somehow Seems Smaller Than it Used to Be!”
  2. “If you’re going out to the stores, can you pick up a few things while you’re out there? I need my mascara from Ulta. Plus, can you get two specific animated film sequel DVDs, a coffee maker, flannel sheets for the boys and a 14-foot trampoline that’s on sale for $149? And here are the nuclear codes for these coupons and these store credit cards and these gift cards. And also, don’t forget to ask about the rebate on the coffee machine …”

I edited both edicts for clarity and brevity my wife’s because she was staying with her folks in Illinois overnight and I didn’t want to wake her with a predawn phone call to check over her quotes or admit that I hadn’t written down any of the shopping instructions she gave me.

What I said to my work bosses and my household boss was this:

“Yeah! OK, Sure! I’ll join the 114.6 million Americans who the National Retail Federation predicts will shop on Black Friday this year—although the same retail trade association estimates about 50% of those people won’t leave the house Friday and instead will shop from home, using a computer.”

Actually, I didn’t say any of that. But my bosses like news stories to have some kind of news peg in them somewhere. It would be disingenuous of me not to deliver some news in this news story.

I’ve written about Black Friday plenty of times before, but I’ve never actually set foot in a retail store on the big day. Not because I’m a supposedly brick-and-mortar retail-averse millennial or a curmudgeonly “boomer.” I’m a Gen-Xer. Which means I often shop for Christmas presents whenever the mood strikes. This might be a day or two before Christmas or even in mid-January.

On my first-ever Black Friday shopping excursion, I arrived at the Janesville Mall at 6:15 a.m.—15 minutes after the doors opened—but many of the local big box stores opened Thursday evening. Heck, Walmart started Black Friday sales around Halloween. That’s a newer trick big retailers use to try to spread out holiday spending and set themselves apart from the legions of competing storefronts in a given market.

Whether that strategy actually works, it meant that on Friday, I was running at least half a day late to gather a news story on the Black Friday throngs.

That also put me behind the eight ball when it came to finding any of the items on the shopping list my wife had handed me. Worse, everything on the list was described as a “doorbuster” item. That’s supposed to register with the consumer as “highly sought after” and “you better hurry.”

OK, I’ll hurry! But wait. As soon as I arrived at the mall, guess what I realized I left sitting on the kitchen counter? If you guessed “All the glossy store flyers detailing what my wife asked me to buy, including her mascara (with extra notes and details written onto the flyers)” then you are good. Very good.

Crowds at the mall were on the sparse side at 6:30 a.m. Friday, so there weren’t many people to grab to interview or ask how their shopping escapades were going.

I ran into Julie Cubbage, the mall’s manager, at the mall’s center court. There, a full-fledged DJ was playing “Build Me Up, Buttercup” through loudspeakers at 6:20 a.m.

A bakery business had catered in muffins and coffee, gratis for all shoppers.

As I was eating a muffin and pouring a quart of hot coffee down my throat with an automotive funnel I keep handy for early-morning news assignments, Cubbage told me she thought the early-morning crowd at the mall was thinner than normal.

She figured that was because local big boxes like Walmart, Best Buy and even the mall’s own anchor stores—Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kohl’s—had opened at 5 or 6 p.m. Thursday night, a time when the mall itself remained closed.

Some late-night Thanksgiving shoppers, Cubbage guessed, likely were sleeping in early Friday morning.

Things did get better later on. For one, the crowds at the mall started to beef up around noon Friday. The mall’s parking lots along Milton Avenue were filled.

Even before that, things were starting to shape up, at least for me.

At Kohl’s, one woman, Robin Schwartz, was still in a holiday elf costume from a late-night stint working at another retailer. She was off work, but she was shopping. Then she was scheduled to go back to work later.

I had gotten a whole lot more sleep than she did, or likely will the next few days. So you know, Robin, I consider you a warrior in a bright-red, elf-on-a-shelf costume.

One friend offered me encouragement in my early-day shopping excursion via Facebook: “May the Force Be With You.”

I eventually tracked down every single item on the list, including the exact brand of kid’s flannel sheets I was instructed to get.

I found sheets emblazoned with classic “Star Wars” characters. My wife did not specifically mention Yoda and Chewbacca in her instructions, but one must take certain latitudes.

Especially when the Force is with them.

Later in the morning, I walked into Dunham’s Sports on Humes Road in Janesville.

There, in a side aisle, was the 14-foot trampoline on my list. The second-to-last one.

As for my earlier claim that I never shopped on Black Friday before, that’s not entirely true. I went to the now-defunct Janesville Shopko a few years ago at about 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

Mission: to grab a full-sized trampoline that was advertised as a doorbuster.

That night, I couldn’t find any trampolines. Either they were sold out or they weren’t where they were supposed to be.

I called my wife from the store, perplexed. It was my first time hunting doorbusters on Black Friday.

“Listen, I’m at Shopko,” I said. “I’m standing right inside the front doors here, and I don’t see any trampolines or any other doorbusters. Aren’t the doorbusters supposed to be right by the doors?”

It was a serious question. That night, I learned retailers put the doorbusters throughout the store—not right next to the front doors—Because the retailers actually want you to move around the whole store to shop.

Kind of the point of shopping.

I went into this Black Friday at least knowing that tidbit. Which helped.

The point of all this, if there is one, is that I’m learning. My editors, and my wife, might make a consumer of me yet.

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