Shop till you drop

Editorial Notebook

December 06, 2003|By Ann LoLordo

IT COST Patricia Van Lester a heck of a lot more than $29 for the DVD on sale at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Orange City, Fla. Mowed down by fellow shoppers at a post-Thanksgiving Day sale, the 41-year-old wound up unconscious, black-and-blue and hospitalized. How's that for a little holiday cheer?

On the same day of Ms. Van Lester's trampling, Wal-Mart recorded a single-day personal best - $1.52 billion in sales. It was a bonanza built on pre-dawn store openings, mega-discounts and a frenzied rush to cash in on the deals. Other discount retailers offered similar enticements.

But how to explain the reason folks line up at 4:15 in the morning for a chance to buy a 32-inch television for $200 at the local Circuit City? Is it just about the deal, the chance to get something for virtually nothing? Has the economic uplift empowered people to spend, spend, spend? Has a prolonged state of joblessness provoked a shopping state of mind fueled by desperation?

Actually, various cultural, social and psychological factors are at play here. Business anthropologist Susan Squires reminds us that Homo sapiens - Christmas shoppers included - are social beings. At its most elemental, shopping is an extension of man's hunting and gathering instinct. It is a convivial time, a pleasurable experience pursued in the company of others. At the same time, each of us has a social space in which we operate and feel comfortable. On days such as Black Friday - the ominous-sounding moniker for the day after Thanksgiving and its hoped-for boom in sales - crowds appear, shoppers collide. A stranger invades the hunter-gatherer's social space. Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, described the contact as "butt brush," and when that kicks in, watch out. A shopper feels threatened. Traditional shopping expectations are dashed; the pleasurable activity is undermined.

Contributing to this scenario is the likelihood that there are limited numbers of $29 DVDs and $29.74 Hot Wheels T-Wrecks on sale, which intensifies the drive to claim them in a confined space. It's a wonder more people weren't trampled on Black Friday.

The pandemonium at some stores last weekend strikes this occasional mall shopper as a sad commentary on the holiday season. Was it so long ago that a Christmas shopping trip meant a leisurely day browsing for the right gift for the right person at the right store? If the destination was Hochschild Kohn's in Baltimore, B. Altman's in Manhattan, or John Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, a shopper could count on festively decorated displays and lunch out. A sense of decorum prevailed.

Sound familiar or just plain sentimental? With 18 days left before Christmas, the holiday shopper averse to "butt brush" has few choices. He or she may opt to cybershop or at least compile a shopping list online before dashing off to join the thundering herd.

Robbie Blinkoff, a corporate anthropologist in Baltimore, takes his family to the Shops at Kenilworth, where parents and children gather around a sprawling train garden, pose for pictures with Santa and dine at the local pizza place. "There's something homey about it," he says.

Others prefer The Avenue at White Marsh, a faux Main Street where restaurants provide beepers to customers to summon them to dinner.

Then there's Menyvette Curtis' response to a horde of pre-Christmas shoppers awaiting the opening of a Circuit City in Catonsville that advertised those 32-inch televisions for $200. As the crowd clamored toward an employee handing out reserve tickets for the TVs, she felt herself being lifted off the pavement. Ms. Curtis acted quickly: She stepped out of line.

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