Attention, Shoppers: Where's Your Humanity?

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, December 4, 2008

What happened on the day after Thanksgiving at a Long Island Wal-Mart pretty much sums up the wretched pursuit of a deal and a buck that has become the American way.

On Black Friday, when stores lure customers before dawn by promising deep discounts on stuff they most likely don't need, a mob stomped Jdimytai Damour to death. Damour was a healthy 34-year-old man working temporarily for Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer. He was killed when a crowd of an estimated 2,000 shoppers stormed the doors he was manning.

Increasingly, these door-busting sales attract crazy crowds. And why are they crazy?

Because they know the retailers often carry only a limited number of the sale items.

Still, there's no question the people in that New York crowd lost their humanity in the quest for a bargain.

What happened after that man died says even more about our culture and corporate greed.

Even after hearing that the worker was trampled, some shoppers complained that they were forced to leave the store while the incident was being investigated. News reports quoted store employees who said some shoppers didn't want to leave for fear they would miss out on the sales for which they had stood in line for hours.

What that says to me: Even tragedy can't stop bargain hunters.

Immediately following the crushing death of the worker, news crews interviewed people who, with scowling faces, wondered how others could want a bargain so badly that they would run over a man. A pregnant woman and several others had to receive medical attention.

But what wasn't lost on me was that the people the reporters were interviewing were standing outside the very store where the man had died that morning. The people, who were so indignant at what had happened before they arrived, nevertheless continued their plans to shop, having to walk past where Damour died.

A Wal-Mart senior vice president issued a statement expressing management's deep regret for the Black Friday tragedy.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the deceased," said Hank Mullany, head of Wal-Mart's Northeast Division. "We are continuing to work closely with local law enforcement, and we are reaching out to those involved."

That sounds so sensitive. It's what you say, right?

"Nothing is more important to us than providing a safe and secure shopping environment for our customers and associates," Mullany said after Damour's death.

Nothing except the opportunity to rake in more sales, that is.

The company was so concerned, it reopened the store by early afternoon.

A corporation that was thinking about its workers and that man's family, and not just about its bottom line, would have closed the store at least for the rest of the day.

Oh, but I must not forget. Bargain shopping can't be stopped, even by a tragic death in your store's aisle.

No time to mourn. They've got to make that money from fools shopping for things they don't need.

What about the employees who had to stay on the job, knowing someone they had worked with had died? What about those who were nearly run over themselves?

What am I thinking? It's not the capitalist way to allow people time to reflect on what just happened to a co-worker. Sales must go on. Shoppers have to their items rung up. Bargains must be had.

It's not as if Wal-Mart is one of the retailers gasping for financial air. Despite a severe retail slump, it isn't suffering.

For the third quarter of its fiscal year, Wal-Mart Stores reported profit that exceeded expectations. The Bentonville, Ark.-based company said it had profit, including a gain from discontinued operations, of $3.14 billion, up 10 percent from $2.86 billion in the previous year.

The company's same-store sales in the third quarter rose 3 percent, compared with a 1.5 percent gain for the same period a year earlier. Net sales increased 7.5 percent to $97.6 billion.

"We are very pleased with our results this quarter," Lee Scott, president and chief executive of Wal-Mart, said in a statement about the company's earnings. "At a time when our customer is feeling the pressure of a tough economy, Wal-Mart's price leadership is more important than ever."

Sadly, it appears that statement is true. For those shoppers, even a death didn't get in the way of the pursuit of a discount.

What happened at that store is an analogy for why we're in this recession that has finally been declared a recession. Consumers and corporations tragically stampeded into deals they couldn't afford.

There's no doubt in my mind that many of those shoppers who ended up crushing a man to death could ill afford to be holiday shopping, even at a store with bargain prices.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and at

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