CINCINNATI — They could have been home, joking 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 whomever was on the other line, debating whether Target was really the cheapest place to get a Play Station. 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 many of the deals are more or less the same — whether shoppers suffer for them or buy online from the comfort of home. Even the time frame is flexible: What was once a single day of blockbuster deals is now a multiday extravaganza. 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 started offering Black Friday deals on Tuesday, according to RetailMeNot.
So why bother braving the cold and the crowds? Perhaps, according to Steven Barr, consumer markets expert at PwC, it’s because there is something more powerful out in the madness than just scrolling online at home.
“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 symbolism in the sacrifice, the stories and battle scars shared after the presents are unwrapped.
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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 Wal-Mart, 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 Wal-Mart 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.
Still, some shoppers will always show up.
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“People have responded to the early promotions that retailers have put in play to outdo the competition — 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.
Shaivya Trivedi stood in line for iPhones with a group of friends. They’d all started researching a week earlier, making extensive lists and sussing out what items would be cheapest where. Tonight, Wal-Mart was just the start. Later, they planned to hit Best Buy, Target and Macy’s, Trivedi said.
They were shrewd shoppers, but all said their interest in Black Friday was about more than savings. Even if they could get all the best deals online, the women said, they’d still make the pilgrimage to the brick-and-mortar stores.
As Trivedi put it, “We do it for the spirit of it.”