Retailers have been saying all year that they want to bring back customers' enthusiasm for shopping, but there are limits. This year, they want to control the mayhem on Black Friday.
The day after Thanksgiving is always a busy one at the nation's stores, and retailers do their best to stir things up and get the holiday shopping season off to a good start. But as the sales have escalated, so has the in-store violence. The last few years have seen some alarming incidents in which shoppers took the term "doorbuster special" much too literally.
Reports of injuries and brawls in the aisles are now a standard part of Black Friday news reports. The violence reached its peak last year, when a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by customers, who continued to shop while emergency personnel struggled to save him. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) paid $1.2 million and agreed to implement new security measures to avoid criminal charges for not having enough crowd-control staff on hand.
This year, Wal-Mart has issued new rules and procedures for handling Black Friday sales to avoid a repeat of that incident. According to The New York Times, Wal-Mart hired experts who've planned for Olympic-sized crowds. Their plan includes keeping stores open 24 hours to avoid the crowd buildup at dawn, and letting shoppers line up for specific specials before they go on sale in order to avoid the shopper scramble that led to last year's stampede.
Strongest Crowd-Control Device: The Economy
Wal-Mart is not alone. The National Retail Federation just issued a report in advance of Black Friday with 13 pages of crowd-control guidelines. The trade group worked with retailers and law-enforcement officers to develop the guidelines, said Rhett Ascher, NRF's vice president of loss prevention.
"Many retailers have robust plans in place to deal with these events, but each year brings new learning and sometimes an unexpected situation or two," said Ascher.
Some of the report's suggestions are no-brainers, such as hiring additional security. Others include placing barriers outside the store to manage traffic flow and avoid door rushes like the one that killed the Wal-Mart employee; giving shoppers tickets or wristbands for the most-popular specials; and spreading the doorbusters around the floor to disperse crowds throughout the store.
Ironically, it could be the economy that provides the best crowd control this year. Retailers have tried to get holiday shopping started early with early holiday sales -- as early as October -- with limited success. There are no hot products to spur store traffic, no equivalents of Tickle Me Elmo or a new iPod. And shoppers have lost a lot of their appetite for big-ticket items like the flat-screen TVs that caused so much door-rushing last year.
A Glimmer of Hope for Black Friday
This season's selection is expected to be sparser than last year and the discounts less steep -- or at least that's what the merchants hope. After struggling to unload huge quantities of merchandise for a song last holiday season, retailers spent this year cutting back their inventories to reduce their losses.
On the other hand, as the NRF report noted, retailers started planning for Black Friday two to three months ago, when retail's prospects were much dimmer, so they may have to revise their plans to handle slightly larger crowds than they had expected. A recent report from the International Council of Shopping Centers said 16% of consumers plan to start their holiday shopping on Black Friday, compared to 10% in the last two years.
Shopping is becoming concentrated in bursts with lulls in between, said Michelle Tan, global investment research analyst at Goldman Sachs, which co-authored the report. ICSC chief economist Michael Niemiera said bargain-hunting is a very important factor in that holiday shopping behavior.
So the holiday balancing act will continue. Shop safely.
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