Apodaca: Black Friday meets Thanksgiving

This week, we will join together in the spirit of gratitude and hopefulness as we celebrate one of the oldest and most revered American customs.

We're going shopping.

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again when we descend like crazed hordes on shopping malls, electronics outlets and big-box retailers. And just when you thought this overwrought ritual couldn't get any nuttier, we now are witness to a new phenomenon: Black Friday, the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving kickoff to the holiday shopping season will now begin Thursday.

That's right, we're now meant to commence our annual shopalooza on Thanksgiving Day. Some of the nation's biggest retailers, including Target, Toys R Us, Sears, Kmart, Gap and Walmart, will open their doors before the gravy's congealed and the whipped cream's been dolloped.

Of course, this really shouldn't come as a surprise. We all know that the holiday shopping season really starts in October — or is it September? — as evidenced by the glittery, gaudy Christmas décor that begins appearing in stores while I'm still buying Halloween candy.

Indeed, the National Retail Federation estimated last week that 52.8% of Americans had already started their holiday shopping. I knew this was true because most of them were in line with me at one of my favorite clothing stores at South Coast Plaza last weekend.

Lured by an irresistible offer to "preferred customers," I naively thought I could pop in quickly and pick up items I'd been lusting after for myself, and some gifts for family. Silly me. I dodged through masses of other "preferred customers," opted to forgo the overstuffed dressing rooms and try on sweaters, mid-aisle, over my old clothes, and secured a spot in an interminable checkout line that was a model of Department of Motor Vehicles-like efficiency.

After 20 minutes in line I had barely moved, and I gave up and left. There are only so many times you can check your phone in an attempt to keep from dying of boredom.

Nonetheless, there's something fundamentally optimistic and quintessentially American about our national obsession with shopping. Retailers have good reason to buck tradition and open for business on Thanksgiving. It's because such gimmicks work on a public that views shopping as a cherished pastime, and — Internet sales notwithstanding — still loves nothing better than a trip to the mall.

Check out the numerous websites devoted to shopping information and you'll find advice on scoring the best deals, strategies for enduring long days of retail therapy, and even one with a clock ticking down the seconds until Black Friday. There are tips on prepping for the big event — stay hydrated, wear appropriate footwear — that are reminiscent of pointers given to marathon runners.

Back in my days as a beat reporter, I was one of a legion of journalists that fanned out across the country to cover Black Friday. Every year, I'd rise at the crack of dawn — not an hour many writers are familiar with — and with the house still fragrant from roasted turkey, reluctantly made my way to local malls to report on the action.

How much are you planning to spend? Is that more than last year? What items are you looking for?

Those were the types of penetrating questions I'd ask shoppers as I stalked them through the stores. It was tiring work, and not the kind that would earn me a Pulitzer, but there was something oddly comforting about the annual event.

Sure, many of the shoppers seemed a little stressed, some were downright rude, and a few looked vaguely like the zombies from "The Walking Dead." But the aroma of pine needles and scented candles, the crinkling of shopping bags, the drone of Christmas melodies and the chirpiness of sales clerks were all so mesmerizingly familiar that I always came away feeling just a little, well, happy.

This year, that happy feeling is good news to our nation's retailers, who are projected to see overall holiday sales rise 4.1% from last year, to $586.1 billion, according to the NRF. The average holiday shopper is expected to spend $749.51, up from $740.57 in 2011.

Not that we should get too jolly about brisk sales numbers. Any economist worth his fruitcake will tell you that economic growth fueled primarily by consumer spending is as authentic as a shopping mall Santa. Keep in mind that debt-financed buying binges helped cause the Great Recession.

I recall very well being caught up in pre-bust euphoria. One Christmas, when my sons were young and my husband and I were feeling a bit flush, I went gonzo with the gift-giving. I also made the mistake of marking every gift tag "from Santa," which prompted one of my boys — after an orgy of unwrapping — to turn to me and ask, "So what did you get me?"

Like many Americans, I've since wrung much of the excess out of holiday celebrations, and we are none the downhearted for it. To the contrary, my family seems happy to focus more on simple, nonmaterial pleasures.

So, no, I will not be shopping on Thanksgiving, or the day after. This preferred customer plans to wait at least few days before putting on comfortable shoes, downing some electrolyte-infused water, and braving the mall again.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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