A year after an unruly crowd trampled a worker to death at a Wal-Mart store, the nation’s retailers are preparing for another Black Friday, the blockbuster shopping day after Thanksgiving. Along with offering $300 laptops and $99 navigation devices, stores are planning new safety measures to make sure the festive day does not take another deadly turn.
Last year, frenzied shoppers at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., trampled Jdimytai Damour, a temporary store worker who died soon afterward. To prevent any repeat, Wal-Mart has sharply changed how it intends to manage the crowds.
That new plan, developed by experts who have wrangled throngs at events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics, will affect how customers approach and enter the stores, shop, check out and exit. Each store will have its own customized plan. The hope is for an orderly Black Friday, a seemingly incongruous notion.
The most significant change at Wal-Mart is that the majority of its discount stores (as opposed to its Supercenters) will open Thanksgiving morning at 6 a.m. and stay open through Friday evening. Last year, those stores closed Thanksgiving evening and reopened early Friday morning. By keeping the stores open for 24 hours, Wal-Mart is hoping for a steady flow of shoppers instead of mammoth crowds swelling outside its stores in the wee hours of Friday.
In another new twist this year, shoppers at Wal-Mart will not have to sprint toward a pile of flat-screen televisions and scuffle with one another to get one. Rather, customers will be able to enter the store at any time and line up at merchandise displays for the must-have items on their lists. When the products go on sale Friday at 5 a.m., workers will supervise the lines, giving shoppers the merchandise in the order in which they joined the line — until the goods are out of stock.
(Only a small percentage of stores will not be open 24 hours; most Wal-Mart Supercenters are already open 24 hours.)
Another problem in the past was the bottleneck at store entrances. Like many big-box retailers, Wal-Mart does not have multiple entrances and exits to spread around customer traffic. So this year the chain will put workers in front of its stores to direct customers and keep them moving.
“We are committed to looking for ways to make our stores even safer for our customers and associates this holiday season,” said David Tovar, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, adding that the retailer was “confident our customers can look forward to a safe and enjoyable shopping experience at Wal-Mart.”
Aggressive shoppers are common the day after Thanksgiving. So crowd control plans, which vary by retailer, are critical. And they are especially important now, given the economy. Newly frugal consumers want more for less, and stores plan to drum up sales with stunning deals.
This year, for the first time, the National Retail Federation created a comprehensive set of guidelines for crowd control at stores. The guidelines note that special markdowns and historically low discounts have led to larger crowds.
“Retailers are very much trying to make themselves stand out in an environment like this,” Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the industry group, said in a conference call this week. But she added that “retailers need to understand that many of these sales and promotional periods might draw customers who are more insistent about getting a good deal.”
The federation said retailers were performing dress rehearsals with their employees. Some stores plan to serve drinks to shoppers, or offer entertainment while they are in line, to maintain calm. Also, the stores say that creating a rapport with customers makes news of sellouts and long lines more palatable.
Indeed, Peter Conway, general manager of a Best Buy in Westbury, N.Y., has made a habit of arriving at his store at 7 p.m. Thanksgiving night to chat with shoppers lined up outside.
“I’m outside talking with my customers, just getting to know them, seeing what they’re there for,” he said. “I’m very clear with them: ‘There’s not going to be any running.’ ”
For years, Best Buy has controlled crowds by sending teams of workers into the parking lots to dole out tickets for its so-called door-busters — hot items like digital cameras and laptops at exceedingly low prices. Tickets are given out about 3 a.m. and each customer is allowed one ticket for each door-buster item they intend to buy.
“They know if they have a ticket, they’re guaranteed they have that product,” Mr. Conway said. “It creates ease of mind.”
To keep shoppers from running aimlessly around its stores, Best Buy employees hand out maps, and they mark popular items with colored balloons that can be seen from anywhere in the store.
Many retailers, including Kohl’s and Toys “R” Us, said they were not changing their crowd management plans because they had not had problems.
After the death of Mr. Damour, Wal-Mart settled a case with the district attorney of Nassau County in New York. Wal-Mart agreed to create a $400,000 compensation fund, give $1.5 million to social service programs, and offer 50 jobs to area high school students each year for three years.
Rhett Asher, the National Retail Federation’s senior asset protection adviser, said during a conference call that big box stores and mall stores had different security issues. Malls are more bustling, public places with multiple entrances — so there tend to be fewer problems. Indeed, crowd control is not as much of an issue for Macy’s as it is for big-box stores, a spokesman said, because multiple entrances serve to disperse crowds.
Still, retailers of all sorts are making preparations. In just the last month, crowds of deal-hungry shoppers have created problems. In one instance, Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic said on Twitter that he would give away copies of his NBA Live 2010 basketball video game to the first five people who showed up at a particular GameStop store. Chaos ensued. Also last month, a woman at a Burlington Coat Factory store in Ohio said she had won the lottery and would treat her fellow shoppers to new clothes. When it turned out she was lying, a riot broke out.
“No matter how seamless and airtight you think this is,” Ms. Davis said of retailers’ plans, “the unexpected can happen.”