BREWER – With the economy slumping, middle-class parents are seeking low-cost alternatives for hosting family events.
And when it comes to saving money, it’s hard to beat “free.”
Nearly 20 children and their parents gathered in the toy section of Wal-Mart Saturday for a discreet birthday party that designed to elude the awareness of store employees.
“We just don’t have the room at our house for a big shindig like this,” said Kim Thayer of Orrington, whose son, Aaron, was turning 6. “It costs like $125 to have one at the Discovery Museum. Even McDonald’s wants an arm and a leg to bring in some clown that smells like cigarettes. And they don’t have bicycles for the kids to chase each other around on.”
The downside? “You have to plan more,” said Seth Harvey, Aaron’s father. For example, guests bearing gifts had to tell the greeter they were returning the item. Then they set off toward the customer service line before surreptitiously veering off course, winding up in the party supplies aisle, where they helped themselves to the wrapping paper.
Party organizers grabbed tables and chairs from the outdoor furniture area (“just want to see how this goes together, then I’ll put it right back,” Harvey told a suspicious store employee) while children gathered party favors and snacks from other parts of the store.
Once all the guests convened, lookouts assumed stations at each end of the toddler aisle. The approach of anyone wearing a blue vest prompted the lookouts to utter a secret code word (“capitalism”), whereupon one of the party guests would shout, “Maybe I can ask a store associate to help me find this item in my size.”
Guests feasted on cake and ice cream purchased “fresh” from the other side of the store. Then the men sauntered to the electronics section to watch months-old football highlights on TVs they couldn’t afford, while the women stayed behind to watch the kids ride, fondle, and lick every toy in the store.
After two hours, the festivities disbanded. By all accounts, no Wal-Mart employees noticed a thing.
“I thought something might be going on over [in the toy department] when I heard a bunch of people singing ‘Happy Birthday,'” said Carl Jenkins, a stock clerk. “But people do crazy things in Wal-Mart all the time, so I really didn’t think anything of it.”
As for the security cameras?
“They tend to focus on aisles with small items, or things that have significant value,” explained Thayer. “That’s why we set up by the books and the baby stuff.”