Shopping As An Olympic Sport

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As far as I’m concerned, shopping should be an Olympic sport. Finding the best deals takes training and dedication and elite bargain hunters are like elite athletics — passionate, competitive and driven to excel.

This kind of extreme shopping is not for sissies. Shoppers (like me) are always in search of the next, best challenge — the world’s largest mall, a close-to-700-mile-long tag sale (yes, there is one), a once-a-year warehouse event or the last day of a store-closing sale when everything left is 90 percent off.

Make no mistake, these events are the equivalent of the modern pentathlon. You’ve got to fight crowds, dodge obstacles, lunge, parry and bench press your weight in merchandise. But the adrenaline, the excitement and the bragging rights that come with a win make it all worthwhile.

Take Brimfield, for example.

The legendary outdoor antiques and collectibles show takes place three times each year along Route 20, near Sturbridge, Mass. (The last show of the year takes place Sept. 4 through the 9.) More than 3,000 dealers set up booths in a series of areas along a mile of road and tens of thousands of shoppers show up to conquer the fields and score the best buys.

“Brimfield is like a big athletic meet,” says Bob Wyss, UConn journalism professor and author of “Brimfield Rush: The Thrill of Collecting and the Hunt for the Big Score.” “Before Brimfield begins, pros feel an urgency and fevered anticipation. And to make it through, they have to be in shape, have to know how to pace themselves and have to keep an eye on the competition.”

Wyss says the title of his book has a double meaning. When the gates open, there’s a stampede as folks made a dash for their favorite dealers, a phenomenon that’s been dubbed the ‘Brimfield Rush.’ The title also refers to the release of ‘spendorphins,’ the feelings a shopper experiences gets when he or she spots and snags the gold medal — that one item they’ve been trying to attain forever.

Nowhere was that better observed than the iconic Filene’s Basement Bridal Sale in Boston. Called “The Running of the Brides,” the scene made the 5,000 meter race look like a walk in the mall. (Filene’s Basement closed in 2011, the last year the sale was held.)

Shoppers flew in from around the globe and lined up the night before the sale to get first crack at deeply-discounted designer gowns. They broke down doors and hit the ground running, hip-checked, blocked and elbowed security and sales staff and often came to blows with other bargain-hunting brides.

Racks of designer gowns were stripped bare in 37 seconds — well under the record times set for, say, either the men’s or the women’s 400-meter dash.

Behavior exhibited at the sale was so extreme, it was studied by Bentley College marketing professors Susan Dobscha and Ellen Foxman who published a paper on the phenomenon. The researchers observed every sale for years, armed with stopwatches and video cams and discovered that shoppers often arrived in groups (friends, moms, sisters), wore matching shirts so they could spot each other in the crowds and operated as, well, relay teams to race for, and bring back, the best dresses. Overhead passes and end-runs were common occurrences.

Olympic-level shopping events take place in other parts of the country as well. More than 5,000 shoppers from around the country show up each year at the Madison, Wis., Children’s Museum Benefit Sale of discounted American Girl dolls, books, clothing and accessories. Rules are strict — no hoarding, no wheeled carriers, no one under age 3, no stopping in the aisles to look through your items and no getting back inside once you’ve left the building. You’ve got to make snap decisions and keep moving at all times.

And taking place this weekend, the World’s Longest Yard Sale, which starts 5 miles north of Addison, Mich. and runs south for 690 miles through Gadsden, Ala. Thousands of vendors along the route set up tag sales; HGTV shows up to film the spectacle and the more than 50,000 attendees from around the country reserve all available hotel rooms a year in advance.

In many cases, those that can’t find lodging show up anyway.

“Some find cancellations, some go up to fifty miles to the right or left of the sale route to spend the night. Some even sleep in their car. However, these are considered small inconveniences in light of the excitement of finding the deal of the day and anticipation of a big shopping spree,” according to the Fentress County Chamber of Commerce, organizers of the event.

If you’re going to tackle one of these shopping challenges, you’d better be prepared. Wyss says amateurs are often overwhelmed by the sheer scope of Brimfield and other such events.

“They don’t realize how vast it is. The people who excel here are pros,” says Wyss. “They know what they’re after and they don’t want to get beat.”