This AP story about a laptop sale in Virginia that became a mad stampede almost has to be exaggerated. "A rush to purchase $50 used laptops turned into a violent stampede Tuesday, with people getting thrown to the pavement, beaten with a folding chair and nearly driven over. One woman went so far to wet herself rather than surrender her place in line." That sounds pretty bad, but it's sorely undermined by the next graf: "'This is total, total chaos,' said Latoya Jones, 19, who lost one of her flip-flops in the ordeal and later limped around on the sizzling blacktop with one foot bare." She lost a flipflop? She had to walk on concret barefoot? Oh, the humanity!
But the key quote, the one that's not merely sensationalistic, is this: "'It's rather strange that we would have such a tremendous response for the purchase of a laptop computer -- and laptop computers that probably have less-than- desirable attributes," said Paul Proto, director of general services for Henrico County. "But I think that people tend to get caught up in the excitement of the event -- it almost has an entertainment value.' " Shopping is indeed its own form of entertainment, independent of what is acquired -- it can be as much a captivating psuedo-event as the Super Bowl. The upshot: the product isn't even important to the act of shopping; shopping frenzies amplify of their own momentum, by the thought that we might be missing out on something someone else is getting. Bargains are exciting not because of the money you might save but because of the scoreboard you are getting on someone else. It underscores the social nature of shopping, the inherent competitiveness of it. In consumer society, our main identity is shopper, and winning trophies in free-for-all sales like these is how we burnish that identity.