How Wal-mart does Black Friday

Atlanta- Deep inside Wal-Mart — Ten seconds. That’s all the time Luis A. Martins would get. Or less.

So at 4:15 a.m. he pressed himself close to the small tower of desktop computers, carving out a good spot among more than 100 other bleary-eyed and increasingly pushy people awaiting the 5 a.m. debut of one-time deals for Black Friday at this Wal-Mart in Roswell.

he stack of computers was wrapped in black plastic, a covering that proved almost too tempting for Martins. At 4:30 a.m. he carefully hooked a finger into the casing and pulled down just a small piece, revealing one of the $398 HP Pavilion desktop computers that would be up for grabs in just 30 minutes.

This was Martins’ first time shopping on Black Friday, an event traditionally known for moving retailers out of the red and into the black for the year. The day lures a cross-section of consumers out of turkey-induced stupors before dawn for sales that save them as much as 50 percent.

It’s the industry’s biggest shopping day — studies show shoppers spent $11 billion on Black Friday last year — and provides a vague sense of how strong holiday sales will be and what strategy is right for the rest of the season.

The official tallies and analyses won’t come out until next week. But at this point, retail gurus are feeling good about Black Friday, and the rest of the season: Holiday spending is projected to rise 4.2 percent over 2015, according to retail research firm ShopperTrak.

Martins left his home in Alpharetta at 3:15 a.m. He wanted the computer for his sons — ages 3, 5 and 7 — and wanted it badly. But there were only about 24 on the pallet, and more than 50 people hovering nearby, making nervous chit-chat, checking their watches, calling their cohorts in other parts of the store, eyeing low-priced vacuum cleaners and computers, and invading each other’s personal space.

A Black Friday veteran

Anginette Johnson was unfazed by the stress level in the room, and a competitor’s cart that now was wedged between her and the stack of desktop computers.

This was her fifth Black Friday in as many years. For her it’s fun, an adrenaline rush. And she’s good at the grab — at almost 6 feet she can reach what short people’s grabby hands can’t.

A manager forced his way through the increasingly anxious crowd. “You need to get over here,” he said, radioing another associate. “It’s going to get pretty ugly in 35 to 40 minutes. It’ll go pretty quick once it starts. Hurry, hurry, hurry!”

A shrill voice came from the other side of the electronics department, cutting through the din. The shrieking came from a woman waiting in the queue for the $378 laptops. Late-comers were budging.

“The line is going this way!” she screamed, and other stressed-out laptop shoppers clapped. Johnson checked the time at 4:57 a.m. One year they blew a whistle at 5 a.m. She wondered if they would send a similar signal this year.

Patricia Coke of Roswell chewed on her nails and tapped a foot. This was her first Black Friday, and she was focused. She needed a desktop computer for her 11-year-old daughter. She stared hard at the stack of HPs.

“I’m all excited,” she said, crowding closer to the computers as the minutes ticked. “All I want is one of those.”

A-a-a-a-n-n-n-d-d-d they’re off!

Then, without a whistle or a perceptible announcement, it was 5 a.m. and Martins and Johnson and Coke and a dozen other people were clawing at the plastic wrapped around the computers.

More people crushed in. Boxes started tumbling. One knocked Martins on the head. He shoved it into his cart. The crowd pushed and elbowed and heaved and grabbed. Two women did a tug-of-war over one computer. Johnson hugged hers.

Within 10 seconds, the pallet was empty, save the deflated, shredded remains of the black plastic wrap and one bewildered-looking, empty-handed man.

Navigating a logjam of carts, Martins made his way to a checkout line at the front of the store. It was a different scene there: quiet, calm. A string trio played Christmas carols. A salesperson offered a tray of cheese nibbles.

At the register Martins leaned on his cart and eyed his prize. “This was too stressful,” he said. “I don’t think I could do this ever again.”