Black Friday crowds may not kill you (any more). That doesn’t mean they’re a good idea.

November 29, 2013

People scampered inside when the doors finally opened at a Walmart in Hadley, Mass. (Lydia DePillis/Washington Post)

HADLEY, Mass. -- If you had to be outside after midnight in twenty degree weather on the day after Thanksgiving, waiting for the chance to save a few dollars on Christmas gifts, you could have done worse than the line outside Target in Hadley, Mass.

There, attendants handed out mini Clif bars and and worked the barricades asking if anyone was confused about the deals on offer or needed help, furnishing maps of where hot items would be on the store floor. A security guard explained how the door opening would work, and how to leave the building when they were finished. But most importantly, the huddled masses who'd turned up for a certain thing knew they wouldn't be disappointed.

"I don't care about anything, I've got this!" yelled one lady, waving a ticket that entitled her to purchase at 50-inch LED flatscreen for $300 off its sticker price. Mike Lazarz, who'd been waiting at the front of the line for seven hours, had scored one too. Last year, Best Buy had tried the ticket idea for laptops, but handed out fistfuls to people who asked for them early. "I ended up with a GPS," he remembered ruefully. But Target had set a limit of one ticket per person, which gave everybody who got one the peace of knowing they wouldn't have to elbow anybody else out of the way. "As long as I've got my ticket, it doesn't matter to me," Lazarz said.

When shoppers finally flooded into the warm store, there was no mad rush to seize merchandise before it all ran out. People waited peaceably in a seemingly interminable, velvet-roped queue that snaked through the aisles, while staff in "Here to Help" t-shirts directed traffic. "The line is supposed to be a maze," explained an impossibly young female attendant. "If you can stop people from piling on to each other, that'd be good."

The whole event didn't feel like a running of the bulls so much as a very crowded shopping day, with maybe a little more bleary-eyed cheer than usual. But five years after an employee was trampled at a frenzied Black Friday stampede in Long Island, reports of scuffles still popped up around the country. And in these kinds of mass crowd events, is it ever possible to eliminate the risk?

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Full up. (Lydia DePillis/Washington Post)

There's a reason Black Friday events are so carefully orchestrated. The high-profile trial that followed the 2008 death at Walmart put retailers on notice: The crazed marketing, with "blitzes" and "doorbusters," carries reputational risk. (Walmart hasn't admitted wrongdoing, spending millions of dollars to fight a $7,000 fine that's still on appeal.)

They've made some progress. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Retail Federation have put out guidelines for how to handle sales events. Most of the biggest big-box stores now have crowd management plans in place to minimize chaos, with beefed-up staffing and a centralized national communications structure that leaves little up to chance.

"Now they take some of it out of the hands of the local store operator," says Mike Bogosian, president of Crowd Management Consultants of Maine, who's handled a few such plans for large retailers that he can't name because of confidentiality agreements. "There's a certain amount of barricades that are used to queue your line, and it can't be one piece less or one piece more. They're very specific. This is how your line is to run through the store. The store manager doesn't make any decisions other than that."

At the Hadley Walmart last night, the danger was more that people would die of hypothermia than trampling. Cages forced line-standers into a serpentine pattern that snaked all the way behind the store, the ground littered with spilled coffee cups. It took nearly an hour for all of them to filter into the doors, pushing shopping carts around the tight curves like an obstacle course, stopping every few minutes as police officers metered the crowd from the front. Once they got inside, certain items carried guarantees that they could be purchased online for the same discounted price, even if the store ran out of stock.

Other retailers have mixed online deals with the physical doorbusters in order to take pressure off crowds and lines. Even opening earlier on Thanksgiving Day itself -- which the Hadley store couldn't do because of Massachusetts' Puritan-era blue laws -- may have spread the demand over a longer period of time. Malls are now being built with crowd security in mind. And it's true, for the past few years, there haven't been any more violent deaths (one last year came as a result of a heart attack).

But here's the question: If retailers really wanted to stay completely safe, why have these kinds of high-stakes sales events at all?

Paul Wertheimer, who's studied crowd dynamics for decades and served as an expert witness in the Walmart case, has tracked dozens of press mentions of fights that have broken out in stores in the past few years. None of them got much attention, but all could've been potentially disastrous -- when you pit people against each other in a stressful environment, there's always the risk that something could go wrong.

The thing is, that sort of competition is good for the retailers' bottom line, which means they'll go up to the edge every time.

"In 2008, there was a high profile disaster that finally drew attention to mayhem marketing, where through poor planning or reckless disregard to public safety, the public is put in harm's way to help sell product," Wertheimer says. "If it's a little crazy, but nobody's killed or injured, it's good publicity for everyone."

Even staggering the availability of deals and opening earlier has limited effect when discounts are strictly time-limited, says Bogosian. "No matter what, when you bring a group of people together with a like interest, it's no different than if you were to have Justin Bieber step out on the corner of he street. You can't change peoples' behavior," he says. "I don't know that opening the stores any earlier is going to effect the crowd management side. I think it's more about getting people in the store earlier so they'll buy more stuff. If you have a big deal, whatever it may be, you will always find at least three times as many people as you have items available."

That dynamic was very much in evidence at Walmart: With people waiting for hours in lines that wound through the aisles, they added item after item to their carts that wasn't on their shopping list. Walmart's rock-bottom deals are imperative to get people spending hours inside its stores, and likely buying more because of it than they would online, instead of doing all their shopping at Target or Best Buy.

As an example of a retailer that manages its crowds it well, Wertheimer points to Apple and Microsoft, which have heavily hyped release events that are often accompanied by long lines before the item goes on sale. There, staff offer people hot chocolate and take orders for what items they want.

But there's an inherent difference between high-end gadget releases and the big-box Black Friday events: Line-standers aren't afraid they won't get the new iPhone or XBOX, and they're not trying to save a few dollars, since they go on sale at full price. For the retailer, it's about showing off how much people love their products, not stealing market share from a competitor in the all-important Christmas buying season.

As long as that's how we shop for the holidays, the mayhem will never end. In a Black Friday-type environment, competition -- sometimes brutal -- is inevitable.

"I want to be the first to spend my money!" shrieked one woman, as the Walmart line surged forward.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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