By Noah Kaufman
Updated December 01, 2014
Credit: epa european pressphoto agency b.v. / Alamy

Because I am either brave or stupid, I ventured into a large department store around 1 p.m. on Black Friday. Despite the masses of people milling around with their arms full of pans, shoes and duvet sets, it was not a wholly unpleasant experience. I was spared the drama of being trampled by a human stampede set on bringing home DEALS DEALS DEALS and missed out on screaming children marauding for sold-out Snow Glow Elsa dolls. What I did experience was one of the least appreciated but most time-sucking parts of the holiday shopping experience: confusing promotions and obsessive haggling. Case in point, the man who blocked our checkout line for almost a half hour making sure he was getting the maximum discount.

The man wasn’t haggling in the traditional sense, what he was really doing was double-checking his discounts, but since Aaron Rogers and State Farm probably have a iron-clad copyright on that term I need to call it something else. Here is what happened: My wife and I picked a checkout line that had only one person in front of us. “What luck,” we thought. The man in front of us only had one pair of shoes, but as the cashier rang them up, he immediately started in on her: “Are you sure that’s the right price? It says on the sign that they should be marked down another 10 percent. Check it again.” The pair of shoes he wanted were marked down 50 percent until 1 p.m., but now that it was 1:25 they were only marked down 40 percent. The difference in price was approximately eight dollars. But he was not done. He tried valiantly to get the cashier to just override the price, but the system was automated. Then the haggler unveiled coupons for a variety of different deals from $15 off to a discount of an additional 10 percent (yes, that is the same discount he would have gotten otherwise). After the cashier politely scanned each coupon (if there was a way to give her a 5-star review online I would do it), the man decided the shoes were too expensive for the moment and he asked her to hold on to them while he went in search of better deals. He walked away after more than 20 minutes leaving a stressed cashier and a deep line in his wake.

While watching this elaborate discount tango, it dawned on me that this is not new and it is not specific to that one person. I have seen it happen a lot at this time of year. It’s probably happened to you too. Stores deliberately create the most confusing promotions in the history of capitalism during the holiday season—sales that last for a few hours, discounts that are valid in some sections but not others, three different coupons that offer almost the same value and practically demand you spend extra time at the checkout station trying to sort them out. And when someone is fighting over a discount there is this feeling that if you so much as clear your throat they will turn on you like a cornered badger. For me this is the best argument for shopping online today instead of venturing out into stores. At least with online discounts you’re only wasting your own time inputting and reinputting discount codes at the checkout window.

Hagglers are an artificial problem stores create by intentionally confusing customers. I don’t know why exactly they want to do it—maybe they think once they get you in the door you’ll just get lost and won’t leave until you’ve spent at least $500. But it’s just as likely that you’ll act like the man in front of us and leave with nothing because you didn’t get the discount you thought you deserved.

There are a number of problems with the holiday shopping season. There are crowds that make it downright dangerous, there is the mission creep of stores opening their doors earlier and earlier, but the time and effort put into the insane fighting over what almost always ends up being just a few dollars will keep me out of malls from now on. Good thing there are still a few hours left of Cyber Monday.