We don't get many big box stores here in San Francisco, and most of us like it that way -- we'll keep our neighborhoods and corner stores thank you very much. But Target recently opened two stores in the city, and Walmart has been trying to get into Manhattan for years. With this in mind, I had been planning an adventure into formula retail for a while, and when I heard about Black Friday getting moved to Thursday, I knew the time had come. So on Thursday, November 22, I left my house with the goal of spending 24 hours at Walmart.
These were my rules:
I could only take my clothes, one bottle of water, and my notebook. Everything else I needed would have to come from inside Walmart.
If for any reason I leave the Walmart I'm in, I must drive directly to another Walmart.
American Canyon Walmart Supercenter #1651
I pull into the parking lot at exactly 6 p.m. There is no line to get in, but they are ready for the crowds, with two police cars and a large security truck parked in front. Nothing says "Real America!" like a Supercenter. Supercenters started popping up in the '80s offering discounts on everything from motor oil to bananas, and crushing local competition along the way. Walmart bills them as a "one stop shop," and this one doesn't disappoint. There's a McDonald's right by the door, and it's open 24 hours as well.
I wander into the store and through the produce section, past bananas, celery sticks, watermelons and oranges and into the bakery with the rolls, croissants and an empty donut cabinet. Then I stroll through the grocery section where many of the aisles are blocked off with yellow caution tape. Between the aisles and the refrigerators there are 10 ft. stacks of 32, 40, and 60 inch TVs, many of them with tags that read, "Item not for sale. Will not ring up at the correct price until 10 p.m." The lines for these already snake through the aisles, and some people came prepared with collapsible chairs.
People fill their carts with Nerf N-strikes and Pyrex diapers, with Coffee Mate coffeemakers and Fresh Step cat litter, with Dona Maria Plotillos, picture frames, and potpourri candles. There are bicycles, Better Homes and Gardens barstools, Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and $10 corduroy pants. Everything is cheap, but ironically, it isn't that cheap. I feel like I could find a $35 DVD player or a $20 coffee maker on Amazon without much trouble. By 7:30 I'm parked at McDonald's eating dinner and watching nothing much happen. The big sales begin at 8, 10, and 5.
There is no "go" moment at 8. There is no mad rush, no mass of people to trample the unsuspecting. There is, simply, a rising crescendo of activity, a steadily growing mass of humanity, and a very, very long line for a 40 inch TV. Tina from Vallejo says it's her second time doing Black Friday but, "never again." Cynthia, also from Vallejo, waits patiently but thinks the line is too long. "You almost get punished for wanting something cheaper," she says with a sigh.
"Once we run out of those TVs, that's when people start to get upset," an associate explains to me. Fights and shoving have been common in the past he says, but this year things seem calm. They have extra security, and the police are standing just inside the store entrance. "We're just here to make sure there aren't any fights," they tell me.
10 p.m. comes and there is still no rush, no bell, and no screaming. People shuffle quietly with their cards and pick up their TVs. The moment carries a quiet desperation -- it feels less like a mad dash for a discount, and more like a resignation that this is what it takes to make it now. Many people's faces express a distaste for the whole rigamarole; as if it's not enough to deal with doctor bills, gifts for the kids, and $4 gas, now we have to give up our Thanksgiving just to get a few lousy discounts. They decline to have their photos taken. By 11 p.m. I'm back at McDonald's -- the next sale is at 5 a.m.
Eventually, I get bored and wander around the store. Walmart has tons of magazines, but few worth reading. I seriously consider giving in to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon or starting The Hunger Games for the third time. Instead, I buy a $3 bag of beef jerky and eat the whole thing. Later, I settle for a copy of Wired magazine, which I spend two hours reading in the shoe department. The cover story is on passwords. It says, essentially, that passwords are useless and outdated; bored 14 year olds and Russian mobsters can steal your e-mail, identity, and bank information in a matter of minutes. I find this strangely comforting.
I pass most of the night like this -- wandering in circles through the empty store, or at McDonald's drinking coffee. Then I go to the magazine rack, and back to the shoe department to read. It is horribly, incorrigibly, painfully dull.
Sometimes I chat with the employees, who seem relatively happy. A few complain about other stores being better organized, or of the woefully inadequate amount of time allowed by their computerized system Task Manager, but they don't look ready to go on strike. The manager is on the floor often and shares an easy camaraderie with the associates. The main subjects of conversation are breaks, sore feet, and how much better this year is going than last. "Last year everybody was fightin' like a motherfucker," one girl says.