As the hours tick down to Black Friday, the most-hyped shopping day of the year, the big question is more about safety than spending.
Last year, a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. worker died and 11 customers were injured in an early-morning stampede of deal-hungry shoppers at a store in Valley Stream on New York’s Long Island.
The year Black Friday is expected to be even busier, so we can only hope that malls and other retailers have learned from the lessons of Wal-Mart, which was forced to make changes to avoid criminal prosecution and another public relations nightmare.
As part of a settlement agreement between Wal-Mart and the Nassau County district attorney’s office, the retailer reviewed its crowd-management and security processes at all its New York state stores and then submitted its plans to independent security experts.
This year Wal-Mart customers will find lines in front of each store before the opening instead of mass crowds, staff dedicated to crowd management, barriers with safety zones and a “crow’s nest” where a worker can monitor crowds from above, said Meg Reiss, executive district attorney for Nassau County in charge of the investigations division.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Daphne Moore said similar changes will be rolled out nationwide. Store-specific plans for all U.S. locations were developed in consultation with sports and entertainment safety experts," she said. “Customer and associate safety is always a top priority for us,” she said. “This holiday season is no exception.”
Ogera Charles, the father of the 34-year old temporary Wal-Mart worker who died last year, said he hoped the company and shoppers will do whatever is needed to prevent a repeat of last year’s disaster.
“No one wants to die so young,” he said of his son, Jdimytai Damour.
Concerns about crowd control do not seem to have dampened enthusiasm among shoppers.
A holiday shopping survey from Accenture found that 52 percent of consumers polled said they planned to shop on Black Friday this year, up from 42 percent last year, when the financial crisis and resulting economic jitters were at their height.
“I actually think what happened last year may give more of mystique and cache to Black Friday this year,” said Richard Divine, expert in buyer behavior and chairman of the marketing department at Central Michigan University. People may think, he said, “If there’s that good a deal that people are getting killed over it, then maybe I have to check it out.”
While there has been a lot of talk about potential inventory shortages this year, 86 percent of those surveyed said they will not be moved to buy on Friday without a discount of at least 20 percent, and a quarter of shoppers will be looking for 50 percent discounts.
The craving for a great deal is what drives the Black Friday phenomenon, which accounts for a subculture of shoppers looking for “leaked” information on hot deals that will be offered on the big day.
Retailers including Staples are using Facebook to publicize their Black Friday deals this year, while JCPenney is offering wake-up calls to customers voiced by celebrities including Cindy Crawford and Rascal Flatts band members.
For retailers, Black Friday has become too good to even confine it to a single day. Wal-Mart stores will open at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day and remain open through Friday, according to Examiner.com, while Sears will be offering “doorbuster” deals on Saturday.
The Black Friday bargain-hunters reflect a big increase in so-called “thrifty researchers,” defined as "individuals who are very cost-conscious and take active steps to find the best price for their purchases,” said Julie Winskie, chief client officer for Porter Novelli, a global public relations firm.
In 2008, “thrifty researchers” represented about a quarter of adults 18 years of age or older, and this year the figure has risen to about 30 percent.
“This shift could have interesting implications for Black Friday and the holiday season as a whole given the growing group of individuals who want to make sure they are getting the best deal versus making an impulse buy,” Winskie said.
Take Courtney Thomas of Chicago.
She was up at 4:30 a.m. on Black Friday last year to get the best deals but expects to go even earlier this year. Last year, she said, “The line moved pretty quickly at Toys ‘R’ Us, but I ended up getting the wrong thing that I had to go return a few weeks later.”
“Kohl’s, I waited in line for an hour for something completely ridiculous—kids’ bath towels,” said Thomas, public relations professional. “They were a really good price, but this year, I’m definitely going to go earlier because that line stank and the store was really hot.”
Adding to the Black Friday intensity is an expected shortfall in inventories, especially toys, as retailers act cautiously after getting burned last year in a weak sales season, experts said.
“There’s been a tendency to limit quantities and that really drives that madhouse effect,” said Randy Allen, associate dean for Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management.
If you just can’t resist being part of the shopping mayhem, here are a few tips to thrive and survive the Black Friday bargain hunt.
Pay attention to your personal security, said Robert Siciliano, a security consultant to Intelius.com. “This time of year the criminals are on their game,” he said. “People out there are desperate and will do things they don’t normally do.”
Watch out for distractions, such as when you put your pocketbook on a counter to pay and maybe your kid is screaming, he advised. That’s prime time for a thief to steal your wallet by making a loud noise or talking to you while an accomplice moves in.
Keep your pocketbook in front of you, and never carry your wallet in your back pocket. Limit the number of credit cards you take with you, and make sure to make photocopies of your cards in case they’re stolen.
In parking lots, he continued, try to walk with a buddy, or ask a security guard to be escorted to your car if it’s dark.
To deal with crowds and get the best deals make sure to have a plan, advised Freeman Hall, blogger and author of “Retail Hell,” a memoir of his years in the industry.
Shoppers should have a list in hand and buy only items on the list that are deeply discounted. Most items will be selling at full price and will be there when you return on a less hectic day, Hall said.
Check out ads in your local newspaper and online, and bring them with you to the store so you can show them to clerks. You may even want to do a reconnaissance mission in advance of Black Friday to figure out the layout and where that must-have product might be.
And keeping in mind that many sales associates are temporary workers, why not try a random act of retail kindness?
“Do something nice for a sales associate on Black Friday,” Hall suggested. “Their Thanksgivings were ruined and they are working long hours. Pick something up off the floor. Or just be friendly. It will make their day, and yours. You will gain shopping karma points as well.”
You may even get some inside shopping information, he noted, like when the next shipment of that popular sold-out toy may be coming.