The reports about out-of-control Black Friday shoppers is appalling to read about and watch on YouTube. At a Mesquite, Texas, Walmart, a surging mob nearly crushes a woman to death and destroys a retail display, which evokes the 2008 incident when a Walmart employee was crushed to death by a mob of bargain-hungry Black Friday shoppers in New York. At another Walmart, shoppers tussle over $2 waffle makers, and at a Walmart near Los Angeles, a woman injures 20 people with pepper spray in a violent bid to secure a coveted discounted Xbox game player. It’s only a matter of time before we experience a tragedy akin to the notorious trampling deaths of 11 people at a Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979. And only Walmart can make things right.
As I wrote on my blog yesterday (and back in 2008), Walmart needs to take accountability for the in-store violence. A major first step is respecting the power of the crowd. There’s a reason why crowd psychology is a formal branch of study in the field of social psychology. Crowds create a dynamic – sometimes positive, sometimes negative – that can be as powerful as a surging river rapids. When your local Walmart dangles the promise of 99-cent DVD door busters in front of a surging crowd gathered outside its store, we should not be surprised that a stampede mentality takes hold. And if you’ve been to as many Walmarts as I have on Black Friday, you know how notoriously understaffed its stores are (in an obvious bid to squeeze as much profit out of the day as possible). The formula for disaster is simple: create the conditions for a stampede in an enclosed space and then fail to monitor what happens next. Should we be surprised that these violent outbursts occur?
Jeremiah Owyang shared my post on his Google Plus page and asked, Should companies be liable that potentially chum consumer frenzy? Or should consumers self regulate safety?
Respondents ranged from Eddie Presley, who wrote, “wal-mart may not be super liable, but they are super sue-able. They need to rethink their sale across the board – even to the point of having the black friday items outside the store,” to Phil Gerbyshak, who wrote, “We should be responsible for our own actions and stop looking for others to blame (or sue).”
I agree with Phil that we should be responsible for our actions personally. But anyone who remembers the 1979 Who concert incident – in which concert goers, eager to get into Riverfront Stadium for a Who performance, trampled to death 11 people – can appreciate the simple fact that there is such a thing as proper crowd management, which is the responsibility of the venue where any event occurs, whether a concert or a sale. Ultimately the deaths of those 11 people came down to a lack of crowd control at Riverfront Stadium (which had a reputation for poor crowd management at concerts at the time) coupled with a first, come, first served admission practice (known as festival seating). As a result of the incident, the city of Cincinnati banned festival seating for 25 years. I believe it’s only a matter of time before we see a Black Friday tragedy on the scale of the Who concert unless retailers like Walmart realize that yes, crowd behavior is a force to be reckoned with and managed properly.
On Sunday night I interviewed a Target employee who told me anonymously how Target plans for Black Friday mayhem. I simply asked her, “How come we don’t read about this kind of violence at Target stores?” She explained that Target saturates the store (where my interview occurred) with additional employees on Black Friday to manage crowds and keep a close watch on the floor. She indicated Target hires more employees than are probably needed to operate a store on Black Friday, but Target would rather overcompensate than be caught off guard.
Meantime, I witnessed a Best Buy in Woodridge, Illinois, manage a massive throng when the store opened at midnight on Black Friday. Only a limited number of people standing in line were admitted at a time (which made for a slower-moving line but mitigated against a stampede mentality taking hold). And security was present at the door, including a visible squad car.
You cannot help but wonder what’s going on at Walmart. In the aftermath of the 2011 outbursts, a Walmart spokesperson named Greg Rossiter told NBC News:
Overall it’s been a very safe event at the thousands of Walmart stores open for Black Friday. There were a few unfortunate incidents, but otherwise we’ve heard positive feedback from our customers and associates.
A few unfortunate incidents? A man lost his life at a Walmart in 2008, and Walmarts in 2011 were unsafe. What’s it going to take for Walmart to realize that one incident is unacceptable? When the poorly regulated Black Friday shopping conditions lead to, say, a half a dozen deaths at a single store, will Walmart continue to shrug off these “unfortunate incidents?”
It’s time for Walmart to take stronger measures. I like Eddie Presley’s suggestion of making door busters available outside the store in a more open space. And having more help on hand is essential. I also think the entire “door buster” mentality is silly. Look, people are going to visit Walmart on Black Friday — all day long. So create a larger supply of merchandise on sale. Doing so would ease the tension caused by shoppers competing for a very limited supply of goods inside a small window of time.
What do you think Walmart should do to reform Black Friday? Or do you think the store has done enough?