Procrastinators of the world, a special gift awaited you this year: Faced with lagging holiday sales, a few retailers decided to stay open around the clock in the days leading up to Christmas. And so Wednesday morning, I hopped out of bed at 3 and headed to the stores to cram in some final present-purchasing.
I have always been a last-minute shopper. In past years, my family has received the finest items that can be bought at 7-11 on Christmas Eve. My one holiday season in Maine, I trucked out in a snowstorm to shop in the wee hours at L.L. Bean.
But now in many large cities, retailers like Old Navy, Macy's and Toys "R" Us have come up with a way to squeeze a few more hours out of the shopping season. They just won't close their doors.
There wasn't any traffic to battle along the way to Macy's in Herald Square, New York City, at around 3:40 a.m. Parking was plentiful. It was like a post-apocalyptic Manhattan but with better sales.
As I headed in to the store, I met a woman exiting with a down comforter and an assortment of Thomas the Tank Engine toys.
"I'm a nocturnal person. I'm usually up all night," Crystal Anruff said, but she confessed she was a little embarrassed that she'd left all her shopping to the last minute. "I had to call the store and ask if they still had enough toys. I said, 'I've been such a bad mommy. Do you have anything left?'"
Inside the store, employees were busy polishing glass, restocking shelves and standing in a long line for coffee. But they were performing for an empty house. You could go through whole sections of the department store without seeing another shopper. For some it was paradise.
"At this time of the night you can shop with no worries, no headaches," said Latarsha Burson, who was doing all her shopping in one night. "You can get what you want and be assisted by one person and you don't have a hundred people mobbing that person looking for assistance."
For employees, the all-night shift is substantially less fun. The ones I saw were helpful enough, but still bleary-eyed and jittery with caffeine. I spotted one associate taking a catnap in the bedding department.
"I'm fine," offered another saleswoman who helped me choose new sheets (500 count!). She said that she feels lucky to have a job at all in this economy.
But outside the store another employee, Brittany Jones, explained that she'd refused to work the graveyard shift. Believe it or not, she was there to shop. Like the rest of us, she hates the crowds during the day and needed to come in the middle of the night just to have the place to herself. As for her fellow employees, how do they feel about going without sleep at an almost empty store?
"All of them have deplorable attitudes. They are so mad," Jones said. Most did not volunteer for the shift either, she added. "It's what the scheduling gods give you."
By 5 a.m., I was done with interviewing and shopping. But my cashier warned me: The all-night hours disappear by the evening of the 24th. If I want to return anything, I'll have to brave the crowds during the daylight hours.