Turkey Day brings Hunger Games to Walmart

Frenzy an example of Thanksgiving Day’s shopping pull

Once, Thanksgiving was sacrosanct: Everything closed, and families observed their lessons of unity and gratitude in the privacy of home, with Christmas preparations and unabashed materialism resuming only the next day – “Black Friday” – the busiest shopping day of the year.

Not so anymore.

In a tactic designed to capture the bulk of Black Friday business, on Thursday night – Thanksgiving Day itself – Walmart stores throughout the country offered steep Black Friday discounts.

Horrified critics said Walmart’s aggressive pursuit of profits at the expense of a beloved national holiday would desecrate the country’s character, and protest groups rallied around the promise, “I refuse to shop on Black Friday.”

Durangoans made no such vow. This is how it looked:

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Walmart’s parking lot was packed. The line for the $238 Samsung 32-inch flat-screen TV, which went on sale at 10 p.m., seemed to have no end by 7:30, as did the line forming for Apple products.

At first, Black Friday customers, perhaps buoyed by the narcotic spell of turkey and loved ones, interacted politely. As 8 p.m. approached, however, they appeared less aglow with the spirit of Thanksgiving and more likely to thank you for getting the hell out of their way, huddling like vultures around piles of goods that were wrapped in heavy plastic and embargoed until 8 p.m.

At 7:45, an enormous man, who had strategically placed himself between a bin of $19.96 picture frames and $199 leather recliners, growled, “I’m staying right here,” when an elderly man with a cane politely asked him to move a little to the left.

Minutes before 8 p.m., customers started looting the piles of discounted goods, with one young buck breaching the plastic barrier ensconcing a pile of $50 “Little Tyke’s Gourmet Prep ’N Serve Kitchen,” seizing one of them, and running off to check out.

This example of rule-breaking immediately shattered the fragile pretense of social order that Walmart employees had tried in vain to maintain. Instead, mob mentality took hold, as three women, two of them screaming at each other, began plundering the kitchenettes.

Meanwhile, Walmart’s Black Friday “response team,” which wandered the store with the repressed tears of U.N. peacekeepers deployed to their first conflict zone, held an emergency meeting between shelves of hair straighteners, which concluded with one employee cheerfully telling the team’s supervisor, “All right, we’ll just stand here and pretend like we know what we’re doing.”

Just feet from them, a woman enjoyed the edge afforded by her motorized scooter, grinning as she cut off a pedestrian shopper who had been making for the DVDs.

Behind her, next to the winter clothing, one woman rabidly called out to her friend.

“Susan! These watches are usually $35. Now they’re $18. That’s a great deal, right?”

Susan, who was pushing a cart so incomprehensibly loaded it looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, miserably nodded.

Throughout the night, children, of which a statistically significant number were crying, complicated congestion by running away from their parents or, in the manner of Vietnam War protesters, sitting down in the middle of a teeming aisle and flatly refusing to get up.

Shoppers managed these moments variously.

One mother, exasperated by her son’s dawdling in the toy section, said “stop slowing me down, or Christmas is canceled.” An apparently credible threat, the boy hustled forward.

Surrounded by discount hunting gear, another sobbing infant became so dismayed she attempted to throw herself head-first out of the child seat of her mother’s cart. As her father mumbled, “good idea,” the mother tried dissuading her baby from suicide with a soothing sip of diet Red Bull (results unknown).

There were tender intergenerational moments. As a young blonde girl longingly fondled $5.97 posters of “Harry” from the boy band One Direction, her father asked, “What’s so great about these guys?”

“They’re hot,” she whispered shyly, and he nodded, patting her on the head.

While a husband and wife who showed up too late for Bratz dolls traded bitter recriminations in the entertainment section, a Walmart sign provided an oblique assurance that Black Friday isn’t impoverishing the soul of the country: It claimed that American flags were selling for their “everyday price,” $18.87. (Tax not included).

cmcallister@durangoherald.com