This year, my wife, daughter, and I made a momentous and terrible decision to join the midnight/overnight shoppers on Black Friday this year. We wanted to mass upgrade our Xbox 360s to Playstation 4 units and it seemed the only opportunity to finally obtain them. We had missed the original launch and stock has been scarce since (more on this later). It was a fairly difficult decision as we were tired and full of turkey and mashed potatoes, not to mention our feet already hurt after preparing food that morning…but we went ahead with it. And so, in honor of this fine consumerist holiday, here are some things I learned while you sane people were sleeping:
1. It Pays to Be Committed
When we found out that the next-gen consoles were coming out this year, we had plenty of warning. And so, we made an agreement. If we canceled all birthday celebrations for the year, saved all of the money we would have spent, and greatly diminished Christmas, we would make a mass console upgrade. Three Playstation 4 consoles is an expensive purchase, maybe ridiculously so, but honestly we spend a lot of time playing video games, thus it seemed worth it. Frankly, given what other people I know do on the weekend, e.g. spend large amounts of money on overpriced alcohol, it generally seems a bargain and we were excited to check out the new Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag game in all its next-gen glory.
This excitement was important, as we started searching at Best Buy at 10:30 p.m., struck out and headed to our local Gamestop. There we found a line that seemed far too long to realistically expect to score and decided to head over to the local outdoor mall (Irvine Spectrum, one of the largest shopping centers in Southern California). Parking was awful, as in full-swing Christmas shopping awful, and we ended up parking on the far side of the mall from our destination. Thus we had a 45 minute walk through massive crowds to reach a Gamestop with a line three times as long as the one we had left. At this point, we walked back to the car, calling various Gamestops in short driving distance until we found one about 20 minutes away which had ten in stock and claimed to have a shorter line. We were in that line from 12:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., at which point we found out they were empty and we strongly considered quitting. But, we really wanted those consoles, so we pushed on.
2. Your Choices May Be Limited
I missed the launch because I wanted to make sure my quarterly bonus was in the bank before I got into anything like major video game purchases right before Christmas. As such, participating in the pre-order was not really an option. No problem, I thought. There will be plenty around, especially once the Xbox One distracts people from the craziness of the launch. I was way, way off, though. I was told with varying levels of honesty by multiple retailers during the last two weeks that they had Playstation 4 consoles around but they just didn’t want to sell them. Why? Black Friday. Although there was no special sale or circumstance, they wanted to have units on hand. It was nothing close to the demand given my experience, but I guess it made them feel better.
Now, think about this. Here I have over a thousand dollars to drop on a video game system but no one will sell me one because they want me to buy that same system on a particular day. I guess maybe they were hoping to sell me accessories, more games, etc. But I had no intention of purchasing anything along those lines. All I wanted was the system. Nonetheless, major retailers clammed up and hid them in the distribution centers and in the back of the store, removed them from their websites, etc. All due to the mystic significance of selling these units on one particular day. This really makes no sense, and I can only assume that it is intended to somehow excite shareholders, which seems the usual reason for business to make bad decisions.
3. Things Were Not As Crazy as the Hype
Maybe it’s where I live (Orange County, CA, a generally happy place) or the places we went (Best Buy, Target, Gamestop, and the Spectrum), but everyone seemed to be really mellow and calm, given the circumstances. It was overall a younger, hipper crowd. The vast majority of them seemed out to have a good time and get some cheap clothes or video games or HD TVs. Angry/violent housewives and rioting bargainers were not in sight anywhere. I saw plenty of lines but no one was really breaking them or getting angry, even when the lines moved excruciatingly slowly and painfully, probably because the poor store workers were dead on their feet.
Sure, some kid ran across the street in front of the car and one person did push past us a bit aggressively at Target, so I’m not saying it was a pre-Christmas miracle or anything. But overall, people were pretty focused on their bargain hunting/sacrifices to the consumerist gods. On the other hand, reading Facebook and other social media feeds the next day made it sound like people were practically bringing knives and bricks in their purses and/or stampeding everywhere in a berserk rage. Honestly, though, it seemed like a really normal holiday shopping day.
4. It Seemed Like a Normal Day
Irvine Spectrum Center
Like this, but filled with people. I ran out of battery calling all those Gamestops. You’ll just have to believe me.
But not in a normal way. It’s midnight, we’re at the mall, and everyone is milling around like it’s the middle of the day. The Spectrum has a ferris wheel, a small ice-skating rink, and a carousel, and they all had huge lines (possibly because they were free until 8 a.m.). When we started to slow down we were able to get coffee and ice cream at H?agen-Dazs. Music was playing, money was exchanging hands, and there was even freeway traffic on the drive over. Really, if not for the massive lines, and possibly the professional DJ in the mall courtyard, it was like we all had just agreed to pretend like twelve imaginary hours had passed and it was lunchtime Friday instead of the middle of the night Thursday/Friday.
Orange County has a little bit of nightlife, especially down by the Spectrum. But I have stayed until closing time before and the place is usually completely empty by 2 in the morning. Given the lines we saw on the way out, I would say that it’s a safe bet people really did stay there overnight. Gamestop itself was just as strange. I yawned at the checkout line, apologizing, and the girl working there said she felt the same way. I asked how much longer they were open and she said “10 pm tonight.” Which means at that point they had another 20 hours to go. Hopefully some shift changes took place and they got overtime pay.
5. You Have to Get There Early
My wife used to work retail and I work in consumer electronics, having done call center work in the past. This meant we were a little uncomfortable with how early the opening hours of these Black Friday sales are starting to be. 6 p.m. seemed pretty outrageous, 8 p.m. questionable, 10 p.m. basically okay, and midnight pretty safe as far as not ruining someone’s Thanksgiving dinner. We also made a point of not actually endangering our own holiday meals with our families. That said, we did wrap up around 9 p.m. and Gamestop did not open until midnight so cruising up to a relatively obscure location at 11 p.m. to get in line seemed safe. This turned out to be an illusion, though, since as previously mentioned the line was already several dozens deep.
As we called around later that night, hoping to find any Gamestop in reasonable driving distance with stock, we found out that many of them had sold out within a few minutes. Best Buy said the same thing. It seemed like Xbox One consoles were a little easier to find, though we were not interested mostly due to the $100 price premium, which, added on top of the massive cost in the first place, took it out of the running entirely. It seemed like we would have had to have been among the first ten people in line, or at best in the first couple dozen. Unfortunately, I am not sure when that was. We had been there the day before and no one was in line with tents or anything – but it was well over an hour prior, that much is clear.
6. The Only Rule Is There Are No Rules.
To be more accurate, there were many rules and they were all changing based on the whims of some imagined dictates from some authority or another. The number of units each Gamestop had left by 1 a.m. differed widely. The way they handled their lines varied based on the store. One store gave me a little voucher for my Playstation 4 when I was still in line, and I had to hand it to the person at the cashier. Another Gamestop did nothing like that, and just asked me what I wanted when I reached the end of the line. When we were calling them, their answers also differed based on some imagined mandate – after three stores told us how many Playstation 4 units they had on hand (ranging from none to ten), one store said they weren’t allowed to divulge how many they had, just that they had some, despite the fact that no one else had been worried about it. No two stores seemed to have a similar way of handling the massive droves of shoppers at their gates.
Some of this could just have been due to tired retail employees trying to get people off the phone. They may also have been powered by resentment. I must imagine this is why one store told us they had 10 units and if we hurried we could get one, but when we arrived close to one hundred people were in line already and there was basically no chance in hell of us getting anything. As a side note, this also taught us to start asking how long the lines were. But really the employees seemed sincere overall, guided by a blind and confused central authority, sort of like Azazoth.
7. Do Your Research
This part is very important. Sometime after 1:30 in the morning, we found a Gamestop that had a tolerable line and some Playstation 4 units left in stock. In a fairly ironic turn, it was the Gamestop next to our old house, which had been our local store for several years until we moved back in June. Basically, if we had gone back to the place we were most familiar with we would have had a much better chance of success. Thing is, we probably should have known that as we had done the Black Friday wait there twice before. It seemed more convenient to go somewhere closer, but instead of saving time we had been traveling the county for two hours only to end up at the place we usually went.
It got worse, though. When we got there, we got in line and someone walked back to us and asked what we were there for. We said we wanted three Playstation 4s, but asked if they even had that many. His response was sure, they had them, but they were only allowed to release one per household. This was pretty crushing, especially on a day where we had been up 18 hours already and exhaustion was setting in. Managing to stay sane and not be one of those people I was saying didn’t exist a few items back, we took our single Playstation 4 and slumped back to the car, full of abject despair and very annoyed at ourselves for not thinking enough about this whole expedition. We did eventually get the last two, but it required some special tactics.
8. You Might Have to Cheat The System
Sitting here right now, I’m not really sure if we did cheat or not, although there is a strong case in the affirmative. One store told us they could only give us one Playstation 4 due to our being a household, but as mentioned the information flow was a little bad up until now, so it might have been a misunderstanding. Or, maybe it was the store manager’s policy and not corporate. I have known store managers to throw a wrench into things here and there like that. Either way, it was 2 in the morning and we were running low on options, so when we found another Gamestop with units we headed over and made a daring plan (note – daring may be a strong word).
Basically, my wife went in first and I waited until someone else wandered in before following. Matching the day so far, it was a short wait. Someone else arrived almost immediately despite the fact that it was well after 2 am. Anyway, we bought our units separately, although we used the same Gamestop PowerUp card and generally made no real effort to conceal ourselves. If there really was such a rule, our very lightweight cloak and dagger was enough to defeat it. Part me felt this was quite unethical, but most of me was thinking it was 2:30 in the goddamn morning and I was upset to have passed through so many hoops just to spend well over a grand on frivolous things.
9. It Was Actually Fun (Sort Of)
I mean, it was fun in the way that you do something exhausting and miserable but it makes a funny story you tell your co-workers who all are amused by it. Consider it the Facebook phenomena. Is it something you can get some good status updates and pictures out of? This seems to be the standard of fun for a lot of people, and I think it made it. It was also fun in some ways for my daughter and it will certainly be a memorable event in her mind. One thing with kids is how many things they forget, even as they get older, but I think she will remember wandering from Gamestop to Gamestop like ghosts from an old Twilight Zone episode.
The fact is that we were mad about getting the runaround up until Black Friday and we preferred staying up late to getting up early. The extreme circumstances add to the feeling of accomplishment, which honestly can be a bit lacking in the daily life. It was basically like bringing home a delicious mammoth to the family to eat in some sort of hunter/gatherer life except much lamer and basically consumerist. But I guess that’s basically how consumerism works, buying things because it feels nice. However, with a video game system you will get years of enjoyment out of it and I remain convinced that video games are the cheapest sort of entertainment when viewed on an hourly basis. So, defensiveness aside, it was good times.
10. Was It Worth It? Yes.
Looking back to this site, we can see that the Xbox One looks like a VCR from the mid ’80s. It is clunky, weird and has the Kinect. I still rue the day I bought that add-on the first time around due to the fact that it never worked quite right and spread a fine layer of crap on any game I tried to use it with. The Playstation 4 is beautiful and elegant and fits very nicely on my existing shelf instead of needing to be hung from the ceiling or whatever you would do with that hunk of plastic they call an Xbox One. This is a small, if not petty, difference but a real one that I will be noticing throughout the years a console usually lasts.
I have been playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and it is the most beautiful game I have ever played. (See video above.) This is despite the fact that it is fundamentally a last-gen game with some translation work and a dynamic weather system. The launch games are a bit thin for me but this will change as time goes on and performance should only get stronger as time goes on. It was inevitable that we would buy into next gen gaming and sooner seemed better than later. Black Friday shopping was the best ( possibly only) way to do it, and a bit of an adventure besides, so if something I want as much as the Playstation 4 is available next year, we will be hitting the lines again for sure.
Previously by David N. Scott