In the week leading up to the annual fantasia of consumption known as Black Friday, the grimy perimeter of Alderwood Mall thrums with trucks and delivery workers. "Freight season" is how one store manager described it, while hurling a bag of store trash into a green dumpster whose lip sat far above her head. Her store's back room, she said, had become "beyond overloaded with product."
As a manager, this is the season when she receives projections from corporate telling her how much she's likely to sell and how many people she needs to temporarily hire to meet expected surges in demand. In some senses, it's a fun challenge. "Kind of pushes us to the limit," the store manager said.
The start of this limit-pushing used to be the day after Thanksgiving, a Friday designed to pull retailers solidly into the black. But these days, in order to meet spiking demand, stores begin selling product even before the Thanksgiving meal is finished. "I don't get to spend Thanksgiving with my family," said the store manager, who asked to remain anonymous. She clarified: "Well, I'll cook dinner and get a plate sent with me."
Last year was different. Then, her shift began on the midnight after Thanksgiving Day. This year, her store opens at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, which means she needs to be at work at 7 p.m., which means she needs to leave home at 6 p.m. "It is what it is," she said. "It's a job at this point. You can't complain about a job in this economy." As a manager, she makes around $20 an hour. "Compared to other people, I'm lucky."
Enter Alderwood Mall a different way—say, through the face it presents online—and you'll learn the mall has what its owners call a "trade area." That is, a certain geographical circumference from which it pulls customers. In promotional materials, this trade area is described as "Seattle's affluent, rapidly-growing suburbs." On a map, the area runs from North Seattle to Marysville, and from Puget Sound to Monroe. Inside the trade area boundaries, according to the mall's owners, the average household income is $86,124 and the median age is 38.1.
A mall like this—a mall with a "super-regional draw"—must be prepared, at all appropriate times, for massive influxes. So, in a wide ring just beyond the loading docks frequented by FedEx trucks, the Alderwood Mall offers 6,500 parking spaces. To attract the people who fill those parking spaces, it boasts—inside the mall's warm, strategically scented, and strategically soundtracked embrace—some 200 stores, from Champ Sports to Soma Intimates, from Yankee Candle to Helzberg Diamonds. Altogether, the shopping possibilities cover more than 1.3 million square feet.
But a more interesting, largely hidden aspect of Alderwood can be found on its unpolished periphery, where the gas lines come in, where emergency backup generators sit at the ready, where forklifts idle, and where two lonely racks offer space for a total of eight bikes. On the curbs and short staircases where smoke breaks are taken, near doorways marked "BLOCKED" and "NO ACCESS," and near other doorways fitted with peepholes and security pads, amusement spreads among the break-takers over Black Friday and its "mass chaos" (the Everett Herald's description of Black Friday 2007 at Alderwood).
"They kind of blow up this one day," said Nedim Cano, 22, who works at Finish Line, an athletic shoe store that subleases space in the mall's 235,000-square-foot Macy's. "I feel like honestly you can find the same deals year-round if you just look hard enough."
Black Friday is a mandatory workday for Cano, his shift running from midnight to 8 a.m. He makes $10 an hour, plus commission, which he says is "kind of" enough to live on. However, as an immigrant from Bosnia who left civil war for the United States, he feels he has a different relationship to difficult things than some Americans. For example, he describes himself as a Democrat, and is aware of Seattle's move toward a $15 minimum wage, but worries that if it were applied to, say, Alderwood, "it might be a little too easy for people," and "the value of working hard for a dollar might go down." When he's not working at the mall, Cano is studying marketing at Cascadia Community College. "I just want to finish school and go on to bigger and better things," he said.
During workdays, prepping for bigger and better things means staying away from the Alderwood Mall food court. "It'll drain your pockets and it's just fast food," he said. "There's not a healthy option in there." The food court is part of "The Terraces," an outdoor seating area with a fireplace, a Jamba Juice, and a Starbucks (one of three at Alderwood). Nearby are two freestanding restaurants—Anthony's Seafood Grill and Claim Jumper—and a Loews movie theater that holds 16 screens. Promotional materials describe this part of the mall as "a garden-like environment."
The Alderwood Mall opened in 1979 and has been expanded or renovated three times since then—in 1995, 1996, and 2004. Its owner, General Growth Properties, also owns Westlake Center in downtown Seattle, Bellis Fair Mall in Bellingham, and the NorthTown and Spokane Valley malls in Spokane. In all, General Growth Properties owns "120 high-quality retail properties" around the United States.
As for this country's overall "shopping-center inventory"—which might be something like a full count of places capable of handling a thing like a Black Friday—the International Council of Shopping Centers says, "There are approximately 109,500 shopping centers in the United States ranging in size from the small convenience center to the large super-regional malls." Citing the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the group adds that US shopping centers are responsible for 12 million jobs, or "9.3 percent of the nation's workforce," with retail sales of more than $2.6 trillion.
In a loading area behind one of the Alderwood Mall's food-court walls, a 19-year-old who works as a cook and a salesperson smoked a Camel cigarette with his coworker. The man's workdays last 10 hours, and come with two 10-minute breaks and two 40-minute lunch breaks. "I like Black Friday as a customer," he said, "but not when I have to work."
Not far away, a woman from Mukilteo sat on a bench, also smoking Camels. "It's fine," she said of her salon job. "It's good money." Her salon opens at 6 a.m. on Black Friday, mostly for people buying hair products. Throughout the day, however, people who are tired of shopping will duck in for the quiet sanity of a shampoo and cut.
On days like Black Friday, the hairstylist, who also didn't want her name used, has to arrive early to find parking—even with 6,500 stalls, things get tight. She's 27 years old. She has coworkers who go out Black Friday shopping for the experience of it, and clients who do it as a holiday tradition, but personally, she doesn't like crowds. "I stay in the salon," she said. "I don't venture out."
Like others, the woman mentioned that the Black Friday deals aren't really that good. She also suggested many things might be cheaper online. Overall, though, she gets the bottom-line motivation. "For the retailers who make good money off it, that's good for them," the hairstylist said. "It kinda sucks for the people that have to come in to work and don't want to. But I guess that's part of life. You gotta work to make money."