Before meeting his wife, Alex Shorter didn’t shop on Black Friday.
But the first Thanksgiving Shorter spent with his in-laws in 2009, things changed. His newly found family was filled with Black Friday strategists and he was gobbled into their plans of identifying gifts, stores, pricing, timing and other key elements to snagging bargains.
"It became clear that Black Friday was a family event in this particular household, and as a special guest, I, too, played an important role in their Black Friday strategy," Shorter said.
His assignment was to find a half-priced Wii, a Nintendo video game system.
"Sure, it's a pain in the rear," Shorter said. "But I've grown fond of this tradition, as it's a family activity that we approach as a team."
Shorter's in-laws are among thousands of households that have turned the traditional launch of Christmas shopping into an annual tradition. The National Retail Foundation reported about 140 million people plan to or will shop over the Thanksgiving weekend.
And preparations for Black Friday include more than just making a list and checking it twice. They must also navigate fighting, tramplings and general madness in stores that has raised safety concerns among shoppers.
But Black Friday is not just for shoppers in search of savings. Some families take a more leisurely approach in their traditions. Instead of lining up in the dead of night for that flat screen TV or PlayStation 4, they're avoiding the chaos by either shopping later in the day or even staying inside to make their gifts for others.
The Shorters are among the die-hard shoppers. They go to bed on Thanksgiving at 10 p.m. and wake up about two to three hours later to go hunting for bargains in the cold, dark Atlanta morning.
“The silver lining is it allows us to get the bulk of our Christmas shopping done and save a lot of money,” he said.
While shivering in line, Shorter said he has found a fun aspect to Black Friday he wouldn’t normally see.
“There’s kind of a warm and fuzzy feeling involved where you’re sitting in line, or standing in line, and you’re freezing your butt off, waiting to get into a store, next to 300 people at 3 in the morning,” he said. “It’s kind of a nice feeling to realize that you’re doing it to get a friend or a relative a present that you know they really want and you can get it for a really good deal.”
He said there’s a communal bond shared by those waiting in line. Camaraderie builds as everyone waiting withstands the bitter temperatures and beckons for the store to open its doors to heated salvation.
Not all shoppers wait in those long lines, though.
Norma Rosenthal and her daughter have spent the past 20 years following a different tradition. Each Black Friday they’ll wake up at 6 a.m., head to the local Starbucks near Seattle and grab coffee and a scone. Then, they’ll head out and shop at the same stores, which include Target and Old Navy, every year. At points, they’ll get “hangry,” Rosenthal said, which is both hungry and angry, and grab a chocolate cookie or something sweet. After some lunch later on, they’ll call it a day.
The Rosenthals don’t shop just for the discounted prices, but more for the family time.
“It’s just a fun tradition in our family to have that quality mother-daughter time,” Rosenthal said. “It’s really a treasure to be able to do that.”
The tradition has followed them across the country. The Rosenthals lived in Memphis, Tenn., from 2005-08. Along with Rosenthal’s older daughter, the tradition lived on. They still woke up early, sipped some Starbucks and visited mostly the same stores (they sacrificed Macy’s for Dillard’s).
Now back in Seattle, the Rosenthals want to find gifts that recipients will appreciate.
“There’s a lot in the joy of giving it and the joy of watching a person open it," Rosenthal said.
But Carrie Chevallier’s Black Friday tradition doesn’t involve shopping at all. Instead of braving the elements and weathering the cold, Chevallier and her family stay inside their Raleigh, N.C., home and make gifts for friends, family and teachers.
“We just do stuff like that instead of being apart of all the chaos,” she said. “And we feel that’s what the holiday is all about.”
Chevallier said she and her family started the tradition in 2008 when her eldest son, now 7, was old enough to handle materials for making gifts. This still goes on today. Chevallier, her husband and her five kids will listen to Christmas songs and spend time making Christmas ornaments and other small gifts.
“It’s important to us,” she said. “I’m instilling that tradition in them so when they’re tempted to go out when they’re older they’ll carry on the tradition and give back.”
Black Friday isn’t without its risks, though.
Shorter said when he goes out the Friday after Thanksgiving he worries about what could happen amid the panic and chaos of anxious shoppers operating on little sleep.
“I always have this nervous feeling in the back of my mind,” he said. “It’s definitely not a normal occurrence, but when you see those freak occurrences on the news, you can’t help not think about it on your way there.”
Jarrett Arthur, a self-defense educator and instructor from Los Angeles, offered safety tips for shoppers this year.
“It’s a day where crime spikes across the country," Arthur said. "There’s always crazy stuff happening on Black Friday."
She said one of the most important things Black Friday participants can do is “be more vigilant than they normally would and open up their field of vision, do some quick scans (of the crowd) and really just pay attention.”
She said families that bring kids to Black Friday shopping should educate them beforehand about safety. Make it a matter-of-fact and casual instruction, much like telling kids to keep their hands off the oven and putting their seatbelt on, Arthur said.
Arguments are another cause for worry on Black Friday, Arthur said. They likely start over a place in line or a gift, and then everything escalates, she said.
“Blows are thrown, punches are thrown, people are getting hit,” Arthur said. In these situations, the best solution is to walk away, she said.
Arthur said families should prepare ahead for their shopping, including finding exactly what they want to buy days ahead of time, know what stores they’re going to go to and have a game plan.
That’s how it is for Shorter and his family. His wife and mother-in-law will spend Thanksgiving poring over advertisements, circling special bargains and items across different stores, mostly Best Buy and Walmart, which are close by, Shorter said. Then, they’ll assign Shorter and the rest of the family to different duties. Last year, Shorter's family sent him to wait in line at Walmart for a laptop.
Shorter’s nervousness will calm when he sees police and security outside the lines. He’ll soon realize that everyone’s there to do the same thing — get holiday shopping done early, save money on the larger items and be with family.
The Rosenthals don’t prepare beforehand, but safety concerns stay in the back of their minds: “We don’t want to dump our traditions because of a few horrible people,” Rosenthal said.
In fact, sometimes shopping on Black Friday without a plan is the best method for the holiday, Rosenthal said.
“Going with a relaxed attitude and enjoying each other’s company really makes a difference,” she said. “Keep it light, keep it fun and get it done.”
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