Black Friday isn’t what it used to be — and that’s a great thing

I’ve never been Black Friday shopping. Actually, I should probably qualify that: I have never been Black Friday shopping with my own money.

I have tear-stained memories of shopping with my mom as a child on the day after Thanksgiving, but they are filled with yelling, people shoving and many a hissy fit from my sister and me. So, needless to say, I wasn’t exactly eager to go back. But then this year, my mom proposed giving it a second chance and I, a 25-year-old on a budget, thought, “Well, why not?”

What I found surprised me: Black Friday in 2016 is not the Black Friday of yore.

Not once during our escapades were we mobbed by frantic shoppers trying to get that ridiculously marked-down TV; no fights broke out in the aisles over this season’s hottest toy; and not one hissy fit was pitched by anyone I was with. The latter can be attributed to us all being adults, but the first two items are probably due more to a shift in how we shop.

Because of Black Friday’s spread into Thanksgiving Day, a lot of the more hardcore deal hunters have moved away from waiting outside chain stores Friday morning, opting instead to shop the sales while the turkey is still warm in their bellies. Others have given up on the stores altogether to shop the same sales online. More people also seemed to be flocking to smaller businesses Friday, meaning downtown San Luis Obispo was a hopping place by midday.

All this combined to make the most notorious shopping day of the year — dare I say it — an actually enjoyable experience.

Big boxes calm

So how did it all go down?

At 6 a.m. Friday, a small group of friends and family and I stumbled out of our beds with bleary, swollen eyes, prepared for battle. We were off to our first stop of the day: Target.

Expecting that to be the most busy, I was surprised to find that the parking lot looked much like it did during a normal day. Where were the stampeding hordes? The three-cart shoppers? Inside was the same story: The store looked almost exactly as it would on a normal day, albeit with a few more strategically placed items and sale signs.

The workers seemed relaxed and friendly, though one said she had been there since 10 p.m. the night before, and that it had been hectic for a large portion of the night before finally slowing down. Most of the customers seemed concentrated, not surprisingly, in the electronics department, where I heard one mother tell her young son to stay in line or he wouldn’t get any presents this year. He stayed in line after that, as far as I could tell.

It ended up being a pretty standard shopping stop. Though the sales were OK, the real savings showed up if you had Target’s “Cartwheel” coupon app, which offered additional deals. One of the moms in the crew, Patsy Mitchell, even whooped for joy when the cashier told her her savings. (This was made even better because she was wearing a light-up, knit Christmas beanie at the time.)

After an absolutely necessary coffee break — already we were lagging — we headed off to Best Buy, where we were greeted with our first line of the day.

Best Buy wasn’t scheduled to reopen until 8 a.m. (it had been open for a few hours Thanksgiving Day), so when we arrived at 7:45 a.m., a small line stretched from the front of the store past the nearby businesses, with eager patrons huddled up against the cold, gray morning. As we continued to wait, the line grew and grew, making a scene a bit more reminiscent of my expected Black Friday.

Behind us in line stood San Luis Obispo resident Blake Turner, who had braved the store for one item.

“I’m here because I’m interested in a 4K TV, not for me, but for my grandfather,” he said, noting it was his first time Black Friday shopping. “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. But I guess it’s San Luis Obispo, so it’s not like everybody is raging.”

Once 8 a.m. arrived, the line calmly filed into the store where my roommate Carly suffered the only injury of the day.

“I think that guy just pushed the cart into my heels,” she said with a frown. But we got over it when we saw our reason for stopping at the electronics store: a beautiful Samsung 50-inch TV that our other roommate, Cadence, was hoping her mother would buy us. (Spoiler alert: She did, and it is now sitting in our living room just waiting for a roomie movie night).

Best Buy had some solid foot traffic while we were there, though that didn’t stop the employees from being helpful — one worker made it his mission to not only help us get the giant TV box into a cart, he also checked us out with the mobile register so we didn’t have to wait in line. Here my mom also got probably her favorite purchase of the day: a Google Home voice-activated speaker for $99 that I didn’t even know she wanted.

In all, the two biggest stores took way less time than expected. We were in and out of both by 8:30 a.m., less than three hours after starting.

A busy downtown

Surprisingly, it seemed most busy in downtown San Luis Obispo, our final stop of the day.

Here were the merry shoppers I had imagined. By noon, the sidewalks were packed with people carrying bags from H&M, Williams-Sonoma, Barnes & Noble and other chain stores in the area, as well as bags from miscellaneous local stores like Contessa S. Boutique on Higuera Street.

“So far it’s been pretty busy, and busier than the last Black Fridays we’ve had,” said Contessa S. Boutique attendant Nikki Erb as a steady stream of customers filed in and out of the clothing and home furnishings store. “It’s not as busy as like, big-box stores, but it’s actually been pretty good this year, so it’s been nice.”

After hitting up Contessa, we ran into one of Carly’s cousins, Emily Zanoli, who was also downtown enjoying the Black Friday deals.

“I just bought these pants,” Zanoli told her after the requisite familial hugs.

Later, Zanoli said she preferred shopping downtown on Black Friday, rather than at the larger stores, because of the lack of massive crowds.

“I’ve never really faced the crowds, but it’s not really that many people down here, so it’s been kind of enjoyable,” she said. “I’ve only heard horror stories of people getting trampled at Wal-Mart and stuff, so downtown San Luis Obispo is, like, very nice and easy.”

Downtown we stopped at a couple of other small stores that had sales, but the majority of the time was spent at the Verizon store, where Carly managed to snag a new iPhone 7 in matte black, which she oohed and ahhed over proudly as we returned to the car, all ready for naps.

In short, Black Friday shopping wasn’t the horrific experience I thought it would be, meaning when that special Friday rolls around again next year, I could probably be persuaded to make the rounds again.

Just maybe not at 6 a.m.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie