NEW YORK – Erica Isaac was standing in a long line at the Gap when she noticed some body lotions positioned to tempt customers while they wait. Excusing herself, she moved over to take a look — and accidentally bumped into the woman in front of her.
The contact, to put it mildly, wasn't appreciated.
"She screamed 'Could you [expletive] not touch me! There's obviously not enough room for you to go where you're trying to go!'" the 27-year-old New York documentary filmmaker recalled. "Everyone was looking down at the floor, pretending not to notice. I was mortified."
These stories are not uncommon. According to customers and salespeople alike, "shopping rage" is as prevalent in our society as road rage and air rage — and just as ugly.
"When the lines are long, it's crazy. Fights break out between customers," said a sales associate at Century 21, a New York-based designer-discount department store. "When someone cuts, they'll say 'Excuse me, miss, where are you going? What are you doing?'"
Sales associate Maritza Melendez said the same thing goes on at Macy's.
"It happens when there are long lines, when people try to cut in front, even just to check a price," Melendez said. "It's always verbal — sometimes they curse at each other."
Isaac said she's witnessed "a million" scenarios where one person in line accuses the person behind her of getting too close or breathing down her neck.
She said the fights occur on the floor, too.
"We were at Loehmann's [another New York-based discount department store]. My mother was looking at a rack of clothing, and so was another woman. When my mother went to take a dress by the hanger, the woman said angrily 'Excuse me, I'm looking at this, I'm going to buy it.' She grabbed the bottom while my mom still had the top, and the dress ripped."
And the customers don't only battle with each other.
"They fight with the associates all the time. If they get nasty, sometimes the salespeople get nasty back, and they start arguing," said Old Navy employee Eumir Ferrer.
At Century 21, salespeople said they have employed a "buddy system" — two attendants in the back of the dressing room and two in the front — to protect themselves from angry shoppers.
"Customers argue with us if they can't find something — they get attitude," the Century 21 associate said. "In the fitting room, if they want something from a rack that's not a shopping rack, they get upset. They curse us out like it's our fault."
But there are two sides to the story. During a recent trip to the mall, 25-year-old customer Nora Hakim said a Banana Republic salesperson was "extremely rude" and sarcastic to her.
"I wanted to jump over the counter and punch him," she said.
Shopping rage can even be deadly. In March, a Houston man was killed after he and his wife got into an argument with a group of women at Wal-Mart. One woman threatened to call her husband to assault the man, and three men soon showed up and allegedly pounced.
The fight was over where people were walking in the aisles.
So what's going on here? Isaac's theory is that people, especially women, go into "hunting mode" when they're bargain shopping.
"They get protective when someone else enters a section that they're in. They're afraid that they'll find something that they want," she said. "It makes people feel special when they find something — like they're the best shopper."
But Oregon psychologist Marilyn Sorensen said "shopping rage" is just a symptom of the real disease — stress.
"I think people are tired — they don't have enough time to do everything they need to do. They're angry at the government, at politicians. They're also under economic stress — people's savings are not what they were, because of the stock market."
Sorensen, who wrote the book Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem, said part of the problem is that people feel they have no control over their lives.
"They say, 'The line I'm in is the slowest' or 'I always get the clerk in training,'" she said. "It looks like they are angry about what is happening there, but it's really just the final straw."
So what should you do if shopping rage happens to you?
"In most cases one should just be quietly assertive," Sorensen said. "But around a person who is out of control you need to back off. You just don't know these days when people are going to pull out a gun and shoot you."