Laurie Black, a 32-year-old preschool teacher from Auburn, Mass., finds herself out of a job this holiday season for the second year in a row. But she's not going to let it stop her from shopping on Black Friday.
Along with a few other enterprising -- and out-of-work -- shoppers, Black is offering her services to those who don't feel like hitting the stores and standing in lines on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Black will score you the "doorbuster" deals that come only for those willing to dedicate hours of waiting in cold, New England parking lots, in exchange for just 15% of your total purchases -- and she'll take cash or even prepaid Walmart gift cards.
Though the recession has ostensibly passed, unemployment is still high at 9%. And for many of the 13.9 million Americans still out of work, shopping on Black Friday has become a luxury they can no longer afford. But a few of the jobless with an entrepreneurial streak, like Laurie Black, are refusing to be left with empty bags.
Last week, the single mother of two posted a Craigslist ad advertising her services. She has yet to receive any calls, but it's still early. As the holiday gets closer, Black will post fliers around her town. Nursing homes should be a good bet, Black says, as elderly people desire good deals as much as anyone else, but might not be up for the Black Friday trip.
Black, who has shopped on Black Friday every year since her first son was born 15 years ago, tries to be optimistic about this year's holiday. "I love shopping and love shopping for other people," she writes in her ad. "Lets help each other shall we ..."
She would also love to buy presents for her two sons and her disabled sister, whom she supports. But with no income and an eviction looming, the family's shopping will have to be done in the discount aisle in January, if at all.
"It's a tight Christmas," Black says. But then again, Black Friday isn't just about the money. "I'd go shopping not even for the deals. You meet the nicest people."
Retailers are counting on Black Friday this holiday season, investing in ad campaigns, seasonal hires, and ever-earlier store openings to get Americans shopping again. Target's (TGT) 1,767 U.S. stores will increase their staffs by 67% and open at midnight for Black Friday this year. Walmart (WMT) has instituted a price-matching program: All shoppers who find an item they've purchased at Walmart advertised for less at another store will receive a gift-card reimbursement for the difference.
Still, retailers acknowledge that spending isn't what it was before the recession. "Persistently high unemployment, an erratic stock market, modest income growth and rising consumer prices are all combining to impact spending this holiday season," said National Retail Federation Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.
Melissa Wolford, a 27-year-old student at Lincoln University from California, Mo., also plans to work as a Black Friday personal shopper to make up for lost income. Over the past eight months, business at her wedding-planning service has dried up.
"I went from having a steady stream [of customers] to nothing," says Wolford, who is also an ordained minister. "We're a small town in a rural area. There's not a lot of opportunities."
But even if people don't have money to throw big weddings, they still go Black Friday shopping in nearby Jefferson City, says Wolford. "Whenever I've been really low on money, I've always tried to go," she says. "So I thought -- why not offer to do it for other people?"
For every person like Wolford who can't afford to shop at all, she guesses there more who desperately need to get the best deals possible this season. "The economy is bad," she says. "People want to be able to buy their family stuff and can't afford regular prices. It's the one time of the year you can shop for a big purchase."
Wolford, like Black, has been doing Black Friday for years, starting when she was a little girl tagging alongside her mom. While she doesn't mind missing some of Thanksgiving to shop, many families don't have time to do both. This year, with stores like Target, Kohl's (KSS) and Best Buy (BBY) opening at midnight, people who want the hottest deals will have to get in line as early as 9 p.m. Thursday, Wolford estimates.
Kristal Braley, who also plans to work as a Black Friday personal shopper, says she expects the personal shopping service idea to catch on. The holiday season already creates around 500,000 seasonal jobs each year, according to the National Retail Federation. Braley, a 23-year-old student at the University of Texas, came up with her personal shopper plan on Black Friday last year, when she was hired to hand out fliers at 4 a.m. at the San Marcos Outlet Mall in Austin, Texas.
"It was a madhouse. Everyone was stressed out. Kids were tired and being dragged around," says Braley, who has a child herself. "I felt really bad for everybody and wished I could have helped. After seeing that, I thought, 'There's gotta be people out there who just don't want to deal with this.' "
Good Fun in Hard Times
So far, neither Braley, Wolford nor Black have received any calls from potential clients. Maybe it's too early, they speculate. Other women advertising the service on classified boards claim to have done it for years. One "Personal Holiday Wrapper and Shopper" from Phoenix, Ariz., says she has "had great success the last two years." She promises to line up at Target, Toys R Us, Kohl's and Best Buy for a flat rate of $50, though reminds clients she can't guarantee she will land specific items.
Even if Wolford could afford to pay someone to shop for her, she would never do it, she says. Black Friday may stress everyone else out, but she still thinks it's fun. "I really, really like a sale," Wolford explains. "[Black Friday] about getting stuff you couldn't get the rest of the year even cheaper."
For some, Black Friday is too important of a tradition to be missed, even if the money's not there. Black remembers what it was like in better times.
"My brother will watch the boys for me. We'll all go at 11 p.m. and sit until the store opens at 5 a.m. with our hot drinks, chairs, umbrellas. Everyone's talking about what they're going to get and who they're going to make happy. It's nice. It's not all about me, me, me."
This year, Black just hopes she gets a few calls in response to her ad so she can buy Christmas presents for her kids. But she's not overly optimistic.
"It's the same for everyone around me," she says. "No jobs."
Unemployed and Eager to Shop on Black Friday ... for You