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I used to be a Black Friday shopper. For years, I woke up at 5 am the day after Thanksgiving to queue up with my mom and sister for the annual doorbuster sales. We would plan our mall strategy with military precision, pouring over sales fliers in the newspaper on Thanksgiving, deciding which stores were worth our time, and which entrances would have the shortest lines. Once my sister and I were older, we opted for a divide and conquer strategy. If one of us was lucky enough to pick the tchotchke or Cracker Jack box with the 50% off coupon, we could all combine our purchases into a single transaction. Or so we reasoned. It never happened.
Over the years, I grew to hate crowds, love online shopping, and value my sanity. And in a post-2008 economy, the Black Friday deals no longer seemed worth the emotional toll of watching grown men fight over a Guitar Hero wireless controller at Best Buy. Though I've mostly replaced my holiday mall shopping with local, artisanal vendors, (because I live in San Francisco and I'm a snob) and Amazon Prime (because it's free shipping and I'm human), there's one department store experience that I needed to try: Midnight shopping at Macy's.
In 2006, Macy's began hosting its holiday shopping marathons, operating select stores around the clock in the days leading up to Christmas. Over the last eight years, the number of locations participating in the retail bonanza has increased. San Francisco is now among the stores offering non-stop shopportunities, which begs the question: Who are the people shopping at Macy's at midnight? What would possess people to hit a store in the wee hours of the morning when they could drink and order gifts online while wearing pajamas?
Because these questions continued to plague me, I decided that I needed to witness the Macy's spectacle first hand. So, with nothing better to do at 11:30 on a Monday night, I drove to Macy's in Union Square for my anthropological study.
From the start, this scouting mission couldn't have been easier. At 11:30 pm, there is no traffic in San Francisco. And while I've been parking at the Sutter Stockton garage (or taking Muni) for years to avoid the horror of driving in Union Square, I decided to give the Union Square underground garage a try. The parking was cheap, the drama was absent, and I walked in the store about a minute after I got out of my car. Win!
Inside the store, I didn't know what to do. Common sense says I would shop, but I had already purchased and shipped my Christmas gifts —not-so-humble brag— and I'm (mostly) not buying clothes and shoes because I'm eight months into a year-long shopping fast. I thought about going to Santaland on the seventh floor to see the big guy, but a security guard told me that Santa left at 9 pm. I went to the Benefit counter on the first floor to see if I could get my brows shaped and tinted, but the staffers said they stopped doing brows at 9 pm (when Santa left). They also assured me that I wouldn't want anyone working on my brows at midnight. So true.
Instead of buying stuff or chatting with a jolly old dude or cleaning up my brows, I just wandered around and observed people. Like a total creepster. And it was great. Probably because the first guy I noticed was recording himself in the shoe department saying "Wherrrre arrrre yoooooou" into an app that played his voice back through a Gollum filter. (Is that the proper way to describe sound manipulation? I have no idea, but I want that app, my precioussss.)
There were a lot of shoppers on their phones, asking the same question in non-Gollum voices. This Macy's is huge, and you're practically guaranteed to lose someone if you split up while shopping. The interesting part was that no one seemed stressed. Shoppers were either in post-work zombie mode, finishing their holiday errands, or in amped up, midnight-latte mode, scampering around the store. (I saw multiple sets of teenage girls skipping ahead of their mothers.) There were just as many salespeople as shoppers, so it was easy for customers to ask questions, get additional sizes, and pay.
I imagine that many of the employees would have liked to have been at home, in bed at midnight, but they seemed relaxed and happy. I asked a few of them if the number of late-night shoppers in the store had been consistent over the last few nights, but none of the associates I spoke with had worked more than one graveyard shift. (Maybe the company has a one-and-done policy?)
Walking around Macy's at midnight was a good experience. It wasn't quite the life-affirming airport arrivals scene that Hugh Grant narrates in "Love Actually", but it was close. Because when I looked for it, I found that love actually was all around. I saw families laughing and smiling, couples kissing on the escalators, a woman trying so hard to pick the perfect slippers for her daughter, and the chillest Corgi I've ever met. You can't tell me that shopping at midnight is not an act of love: it involves wearing non-pajamas at midnight.
Midnight shopping reaffirmed my belief that crowds are for suckers. I've worked retail during the holidays, and the people I saw at Macy's last night were the most content shoppers and staffers I've ever seen this close to a holiday. If you need to make last-minute purchases before Christmas, take a disco nap and try shopping in the wee hours of the morning. Or go to bed really, really early and plan a trip for 5 am. You can buy what you need, watch the sun rise from Union Square, and walk into your office early, knowing that you owned your holiday errands before 8 am.