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Stores seek calm among the buying frenzy

Shoppers gather early for last year's Black Friday at the Wal-Mart in Fair Lakes.
Shoppers gather early for last year's Black Friday at the Wal-Mart in Fair Lakes. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

After years of stirring up customers to flock into stores on the day after Thanksgiving, retailers and the government this year are working on ways to calm the Black Friday crowds while keeping the buying as feverish as ever.

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Mindful of what happened last year, when a 34-year-old employee was trampled to death by stampeding shoppers at a Wal-Mart in New York, retailers are pairing doorbuster specials with new crowd-control measures. For instance, Wal-Mart will remain open 24 hours, allowing shoppers to be in the store while the sales start, eliminating the rush of humanity that can occur when doors open.

Black Friday kicks off the make-or-break holiday season, when retailers earn an important chunk of their revenue for the year. But the sales, marked by multitudes of shoppers stalking the aisles for limited supplies of merchandise, have been the scene of violence. With budget-conscious shoppers already wary about spending, experts say, retailers need to go out of their way to ensure that safety concerns aren't another impediment.

"Consumers are already worried about the economy and losing a job. The last thing they need is to worry about breaking a foot [during a stampede] or worse," said Craig R. Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consulting firm.

Last year, authorities said, a crowd of about 2,000 shoppers pushed their way into a Wal-Mart outside New York City and trampled a maintenance worker shortly after the doors opened at 5 a.m. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Wal-Mart a citation, asserting that the retailer failed to provide training for employees on how to handle such large crowds. Wal-Mart is contesting the citation, according to OSHA.

A new crowd control

The incident prompted several sets of Black Friday guidelines from OSHA; workforce regulators in states, including Maryland; and the National Retail Federation. The guidelines call for retailers to develop detailed crowd-control plans and let in small groups of customers at a time when the doors open and use Internet lotteries for popular items.

Officials who devised the guidelines said they could not determine how many retailers were following them. Retailers "need to train their employees, set up barricades and make sure lines don't extend to entrances," said Jordan Barab, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. "They need a contingency plan in case something goes wrong."

The guidelines also call for retailers to issue tickets corresponding to the number of hot items that they have in stock to customers waiting in line. That, experts say, could avert temper flare-ups that can be sparked when shoppers discover that the item for which they waited for hours is sold out.

"If I have 50 laptops, I'll have 50 tickets," said Robert Delissio, general manager of Best Buy in the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Northwest Washington. The retailer, he said, has been using the ticketing system for a few years.

"There's no reason to rush the door," he added. "If you have the ticket, the product is secure."

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Daphne Moore said the retailer has developed new guidelines based on extensive consultation with sports and entertainment experts. Hot items will be placed in several locations, instead of just one, to allow for better crowd flow.

"Promotional items will be placed allowing folks to line up [in several areas] that aren't as busy," Moore said.

Target is airing commercials promoting the idea that waiting in a predawn line isn't the ultimate Black Friday experience -- great deals can be had throughout the day even for those who opt to sleep in.

Words of warning

The specter of out-of-control crowds made a deep impression last year, so much so that even a local AAA official who normally sticks to sharing safe-parking tips on Black Friday offered ideas on safety in the stores. John B. Townsend II, manager of government and public affairs, fired off a news release on Tuesday titled "Survival Tips to Avoid Being Trampled By Out-of-Control Shoppers."

He suggested that shoppers be proactive in protecting themselves from stampedes. He said shoppers caught in a surging crowd should go in the direction of the throng, then slowly work their way sideways to any open space. Shoppers who fall, he said, should not lay on their backs or stomachs but curl into a ball and try to crawl in the direction of the crowd.

Better yet, Townsend said, consumers should go shopping with a buddy who could rescue them if they get into trouble.

Shoppers "get into an emotional frenzy like sharks and will literally run over their mothers to get to a bargain," Townsend said in an interview. "I don't think anyone goes out to get into a fistfight, slapped, cursed out or shot, but it happens."


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