Dec. 2, 2013 at 2:10 PM ET
The breakout hit at Wal-Mart on "Black Friday" wasn't a mega TV, sleek tablet or the latest giggling Elmo. It was towels.
It's a sign of the times that consumers battered by a recovery that has boosted corporate profits but has done little to raise their own bottom lines are reduced to scrapping over basic bathroom supplies.
The retailer announced it had sold 2.8 million towels during the shopping event, which this year started even earlier at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. The textile sales outpaced the 300,000 bicycles, 1.4 million tablets, and 2 million televisions sold during the period, and also beat last year's towel sales by 1 million.
For $1.74, single bath towels and six-packs of washcloths were available. For the washcloths, that breaks down to $.29 per towel.
"We've seen at-home items like towels and sheets and even Rubbermaid Tupperware become popular on Black Friday at our stores," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Deisha Barnett. "A lot of people are either hosting guests for the weekend or preparing for guests for the holiday season."
Wal-Mart said the top sellers for the day in-store and online were big screen televisions, iPad minis, laptops, XBOX ONEs, PS4's and the Call of Duty Ghosts video game.
Reports of physical struggles to snag the deals lit up on social media.
One YouTube video showed 15-20 shoppers at a Wal-Mart in Bloomingdale, Ill., held at bay by a police officer and three Wal-Mart employees until the store gave the signal to start on Thursday.
"It was like ESPN in Wal-Mart," said Anthony Schullo, a twenty-year-old student at North Central College who taped the incident and uploaded it online. Shoppers hustled and grabbed the towels and other items, shouting "go get it!"
The aisle was filled with adrenalin and anticipation beforehand, said Schullo. He said Wal-Mart employees asked everyone to stand back from the display until the appointed time. Customers chided and sniped anyone who got too close, getting agitated when other shoppers broke the rules and grabbed the merchandise before the 6 p.m. kickoff.
In another video, a man propped up by another man left the scene of Wal-Mart towel sale clutching his stomach.
"This is an example of one video being used to talk about what's happening across the country," said Wal-Mart's Barnett, who noted the retailer's over 4,000 stores serve more than 22 million on Thanksgiving Day. "We have had some of our safest Black Friday events we've seen at Wal-Mart."
Shoppers also took to Twitter to report incidents.
"The idea of people fighting over towels is pretty outrageous," said Louis Hyman, an assistant professor in the Labor Relations, Law, and History department at Cornell University.
"It's something that you imagine most people have. It's not the equivalent of a Cabbage Patch Doll. They're not fighting over a PS4 (game console). They're fighting over towels."
The popularity of the bathroom commodity during a day usually associated with big-ticket gadget purchases and trendy toys reflects the country's low levels of consumer credit card borrowing and stagnant wage growth over the past few years, he said. Consumer credit card debt is down 17 percent from its July 2008 pre-recession high. And wages, on an inflation-adjusted basis, peaked in 1973.
"They have neither wages nor credit, so this is what people can afford to get," said Hyman.