by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 1, 2008
NOW, THE ECONOMY; LATER, THE DEFICITS
SIERRA VISTA, Ariz., Nov. 28, 2008 -- Black Friday shoppers of goodwill and kind heart might hope that the neighbors near the mall in this retiree-and-military southern Arizona town never find out the home address of the Best Buy marketing genius who hired the high school drum, bugle, and glockenspiel band to pulsate the parking lot at 4AM.
A breezy 41 degrees and nary a ray of dawn slipping above the Coronado Range from nearby Mexico greeted the weird, worried, wary and weary this morning. The crowds were respectable in size and demeanor for the most part, and they were buying. But wow have things changed.
Holiday shopping in times of recession has become guerilla warfare gone wild, or deer hunting with helicopters and radios and every strategy and gadget imaginable.
"Can you hear me? Did you get in? We're about 100th in line here," a dad with part of his family on line behind me at Sears, shouted into a cell phone to his son and daughter across town at Wal-Mart.
People were using text messaging and cell phones to check on where their cohorts were, at what other stores, and in some cases in what cities.
"I was at Wal-Mart at 5AM and it was obvious I was not getting the $88 electric riding Jeep on sale for my son, even though they had 15 in stock. They sort of had a security cordon of clerks around the sale items to keep people from fighting," a young mom from nearby Fort Huachuca, celebrating her seventh wedding anniversary two days before Christmas, confided at the Sears checkout line.
She added, "Two nasty looking young guys actually told me 'if you touch one of these Jeeps we're going to hurt you. Even if we have to follow you out of the store. These are taken. Don't even think about buying one.'" She said she got on her cell phone and went to Plan B. "My husband is assigned to Washington, D.C. and is already out at a Super Wal-Mart in Virginia (two hours ahead), not a little one like here, and as soon as I told him the situation he was able to get a little Jeep for our son."
Sears scored a hit with a newspaper coupon that promised $10 off for any clothing purchases of $50 or more. A woman in line with an armful of jeans gave an extra coupon to two school girls doing their shopping saying, "Here, I have extras. I couldn't see them going to waste - it's like giving up a $10 bill."
The high school band stunt brought about 150 cars into their parking lot before 5AM when only 60 folks were shivering the dark in sweats and hoodies at Sears. "What a dumb idea at this hour," one woman on line joked. "My friends in the subdivision behind the mall have already been complaining to the cops - they hate Best Buy for this stunt."
But with it all there were bargains and sales, at least at my visit at Sears. Yet the sales themselves also revealed some flaws in supposedly well-thought holiday marketing in the face of smarter consumers.
It didn't come to blows, but in the tool department a woman whose husband looked a bit embarrassed by his vociferous wife was telling a clerk, "I know it is not your fault, but it sucks, it sucks for me and it sucks for Sears. I want you to tell a manager that I got up at 4AM and waited on line to buy two identical plasma tv sets for family gifts. I checked on line last night and this store had two in stock of my model and size, and your tv guy confirmed I was the first one here!"
"So what's the problem?" the female hardware clerk shot back.
The woman shook a fist and snapped: "You're the problem. You just suck! I came to buy, was first in line, and told 'Sorry, those two tv sets were sold online to someone who paid for them and elected "in-store pickup" so even though it is here we can't sell it.'"
To her credit, the hardware and tools clerk calmly took the woman's name and phone number. She said that in an effort to move as much merchandise as possible in a tough year, Sears indeed had "encouraged people to make the actual purchase online and pick up the item in the store and save shipping charges. We were trained to deal with the problem, and when I can get to one of the managers we'll try to make good with a rain check and a promise to get the merchandise to this store for you at the promised price before Christmas."
Not completely happy, the woman and her husband drifted away and looked at a hydraulic auto jack on special for $29.
I still shop at all stores, including the only one within an hour of my home, Wal-Mart. When on the road, if possible, I try to do the bulk of my spending at Sears. Policies might have changed, but the last time I checked Sears - alone among major retailers - still pays full medical and fringe benefits to employees called up for military duty and their families.
Other stores either don't pay, have time limits, or reduce the benefits. I felt good at each checkout line adding five or ten bucks to their "American Heroes" fund program, which helps families of service men and women. With one son in Iraq and another who spent 16 months there, I'll pay a bit more to support Sears and its employment policies.
In electronics, the tv sets of all sizes and prices had the longest lines. In a smart move a manager with all the proper keys had brought big rolling security "cages" of cameras, MP3 players, GPS devices, cell phones and other small but expensive items onto the sales floor, thus augmenting the items on display and keeping things moving nicely.
Just listening to those around me it seemed that Target, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and a three-day Home Depot sale were getting business, or at least comparison-shopping looks, from my fellow Sears zombies.
Driving around before 7AM, I noticed that Pep Boys had opened early and although no one was roaming the aisles, the service and tire bays were pretty full.
A final sign of the times was the jewelry department at Sears with 20 to 70 percent off marked-down prices on diamond engagement rings. At the counter, three young men whispering in Spanish compared sparkles and prices. Customers were told to "take a number" as two clerks tried to keep up with the short and patient lines.
By 5:1AM, the initial rush of about 150 Sears shoppers had eased. Checkout lines were shorter, and as I left the mall at 6:21PM very few cars were entering the lot.
Not to worry. I had to roll up the window to listen to the news, because the ground was still vibrating from the drums and the chimes.