CINCINNATI -- They could have been home, making jokes about waistbands threatening to snap and reveling in carb-induced comas on the sofa. Instead a few hundred people were lined up outside Target at Waterstone Center on Thanksgiving night, waiting for the blood sport of Black Friday to begin.
Some bounced in place as the sun began to sink, clutching shopping lists like holy texts. In hurried phone calls, they comparison-shopped with whoever was in the other line, debating whether Target was really the cheapest place to get a PlayStation. Some, working in teams, laid out their battle plans: You stand in the Apple queue. You snatch a Hatchimal. You hold a spot in line.
The spoils of Black Friday used to be open only to those willing to rise early, brave the crowds and endure long lines. Now, whether shoppers suffer for them or buy online from the comfort of home, many of the deals are more or less the same. Even the time frame is flexible: One day of blockbuster deals has morphed into a long weekend. This year, about 71 percent of holiday shoppers will make purchases in stores or online between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, according to a survey from Deloitte.
For many of the major players, staying competitive means going live with sales before the turkey is even in the brine. Nearly 500 retailers launched Black Friday deals on Tuesday, according to RetailMeNot.
So why bother braving cold and crowds? Perhaps, according to Steven Barr, consumer markets expert at PwC, it’s because there is something more powerful out in the mayhem.
“On a day like Black Friday, it’s not about convenience. It’s purely about emotion," Barr said. “A website can’t give you goose bumps.”
For some, it’s the high that comes from going toe to toe with other shoppers over the day’s most precious deals. For others, it’s the gratification born of immediacy, the rush of holding the boxes in your hands. Or maybe it’s the symbolism in the sacrifice, the stories and battle scars shared after the presents are unwrapped.
When Target finally opened at 5 p.m. Thursday, the shoppers hurried toward the doors in what looked like the world’s most polite race. Inside, the order disintegrated. People dodged one another. Some used shopping carts like tanks, plowing through the crowd.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re gonna get an Xbox,” a little girl yelled to her older sister as they sprinted ahead.
“Don’t get too excited too soon,” her sister warned. “We might get there and they’ll be gone already.”
When they made it to the pyramid of white boxes, they grabbed one gingerly with little fingers. All around them, chaos roiled. Babies wailed. Dads grunted as they balanced colossal TV boxes on too-small carts.
The girls were blissfully unaware.
“I think I’m gonna die of happiness," the smaller one said.
At Walmart, down the road in Mason, the doors had been open since dawn, but the tumult wouldn’t begin until sundown. Customers had lined up in the afternoon, while the items they coveted were still sheathed in plastic wrap, beneath signs that said “Not for sale until Thursday at 6 p.m.”
Mathew Ishak, 21, seemed calm as he wandered the aisles on his fourth Black Friday as a Walmart employee. Over the years, traffic had slowed incrementally. Other than one fight he’d broken up two years ago -- a man punched a woman in the face over a TV, he said -- he’d found Black Friday to be, well, tame.
“There have been less people every year because of online shopping,” Ishak said. “If it wasn’t for the deals they can only get here, I don’t think many people would come.”
Ishak’s experience reflects a growing trend. Deloitte’s survey showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents say they will take advantage of early deals offered online. Research by Adobe Analytics expects Black Friday online sales alone could hit $5.9 billion -- a more than 17 percent increase over last year.
But you wouldn’t know that from Kenwood Towne Center in Cincinnati on the morning of the official doorbuster day. Before 8 a.m. Friday, finding parking in any of the mall’s sprawling lots was a feat of its own. Employees stood at the entrance of stores such as Pacsun and Pink ushering restless customers inside a few at a time.
In Lululemon, it was nearly impossible to separate the serpentine lines for the fitting room and checkout counters. It was hot, and customers shed their winter coats almost immediately.
“I’m out, this is too overwhelming!" one girl with a ponytail shouted to her friends over the din of shoppers and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on the store’s speakers.
But as Cathy Bertke waited outside the glittery cacophony of Justice, where her daughter Nicole was helping her 6-year-old navigate her first-ever Black Friday, she was at ease. She and Nicole had been Black Friday shopping together for decades. Each year they arrived early, in the lull between the night owls and the early birds. They’d learned how to pace themselves and to gauge what items were worth waiting in line.
“If you’re a real shopper, you can handle it,” she said with a smile.
After years of fanfare, Black Friday has become synonymous with holiday spirit.
“People have responded to the early promotions -- from early Black Friday deals to free shipping -- but the event still holds its place as a holiday tradition,” said Rod Sides, leader of Deloitte’s U.S. retail and distribution practice.
In Sears at Eastgate Mall, Tonya Lewis hummed “Jingle Bells” to herself. She’d risen at 3:45 a.m. and came armed with coupons she’d been amassing for weeks. Lewis, 57, and her friends had gone Black Friday shopping together since they were 18 and had the stories to prove it. On one of their earlier ventures, she said in a scandalous whisper, she saw a woman pull a switchblade after losing her place in line at Walmart.
Not much had changed over the years for her crew. They still got up early and dressed in their most festive clothes. (Santa’s jolly face beamed from her leggings and hung from her ears.) They piled into the car and blared Christmas music and swapped stories while they stood in line. The crowds and the waiting are just part of the festivities.
"We’ve got to be here in person,” Lewis said. “We would never miss it.”