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Early Thanksgiving openings may limit Black Friday chaos at big box retailers

With the retail sector’s push to shift Black Friday to Thanksgiving evening, more deal-hunting shoppers are putting down their forks and picking up their wallets earlier this year. While the Thursday evening hours and staggered openings may put a premature end to turkey day, they may also help prevent chaotic overcrowding and ease tensions at the registers.

In years past, stores have lured in Black Friday shoppers with rock-bottom prices. But with sometimes only a few of the item in stock, competition for those doorbusters has sometimes seemed more likely to lead to black eyes than satisfied customers. Over the past several years, numerous shoppers have been injured in the free-for-all that has erupted when stores open their doors for Black Friday sales. In 2011, a woman in California turned herself in to authorities after injuring 20 people when she shot pepper spray into a crowd of gamers waiting to get Xbox consoles.

Perhaps the most notorious Black Friday incident was the trampling death of a Walmart employee five years ago in New York. Wal-Mart settled with the Nassau County District Attorney’s office in 2009, agreeing to pay nearly $2 million without admitting wrongdoing. The company is still appealing the $7,000 fine it was assessed by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the wake of the death.

The agency said in a statement last week that it “is encouraging retail employers to take precautions to prevent workplace injuries during major sales events, including Black Friday.”

The trampling jolted major sellers around the country into action, said retail security consultant Curtis Baillie. “That was the incident that around the country seemed to wake up a lot of retailers,” he said, calling the death “probably one of the worst instances I can think of.”

Baillie said stores opening on Thanksgiving night and varying the timing of their sale items could help staff deal with a crush of shoppers all trying to enter at once. “I think that’s taken away some of that security challenge that retailers have been facing,” he said. 

Last year, when retailers started experimenting with these tactics, the results were promising. “You didn’t have anywhere near the incidents with crowd control and security you had two, three, four years ago,” he said.

Staggering sale times made the in-store traffic flow more smoothly, said Sonya Hostetler, Wal-Mart’s vice president of asset protection and safety. “It keeps somewhat of the frenzy under control and down. We want to avoid any type of frenzy.”

Big retailers and malls are ramping up security staffing and adding barricades to corral hordes of shoppers. “Malls will generally bring more security,” including private guards, plainclothes and uniformed police officers, said Malachy Kavanagh, senior vice president the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Black Friday is retail’s marquee production, with a huge cast and lengthy preparations. In its fifth annual handbook of crowd management guidelines, the National Retail Federation recommends two to three months of planning for an event like Black Friday. 

Wal-Mart gets an even earlier head start. “We work on this all year,” Hostetler said. By June or July, the mechanics of the plan are disseminated at the store level.

This year, Wal-Mart is offering one-hour price guarantees on 21 items like a 16 GB iPad Mini with wi-fi for $299 and an HP laptop for $278. If the store runs out of the item before the one-hour window is up, a customer can get a guarantee card that will let them get the item at that price later. It’s also distributing wristbands for hot items that might sell out. 

Best Buy is using a similar device to organize the hordes. “We have a ticketing process that begins two hours before the doorbusters,” said Amy von Walter, Best Buy’s senior director of public relations. 

Big box retailers also take advantage of their size to spread out their sales. Wal-Mart stores with ample square footage in the grocery department will be using that space, Hostetler said. “You may see movies in the meat department.”

“We have to maximize the real estate in our stores, so we’ll segment the store by product category as appropriate and as the space allows,” von Walter said. “It’s really designed to make it easier for the customers to navigate the store.” 

Another benefit to cordoning off certain sections and letting consumers mill around the rest of the store is that shoppers won’t be stuck waiting outside in inclement weather, such as the chilling cold expected to move across the country this week as a storm that has already claimed 13 lives heads northeast.

Stores are going out of their way to make sure customers know where to go by setting up barricades and signs. “Literally, we will tape our floors with arrows and lines, basically directional signage,” von Walter said.

Wal-Mart and Target have maps available on their websites and will have them in the stores, as well, to help customers find their way.. 

“Hanging signs direct guests to hot ticket items, which are spread throughout the store to ensure there’s plenty of space to shop,” a Target spokeswoman said via email. “Some team members use mobile security devices, such as Segways, to increase their visibility,” she said.