If you’ve never had the post-Thanksgiving pleasure of fighting off  housewives for the last toy on the shelf (think Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desperate search for TurboMan in Jingle All the Way), consider yourself missing out. And of course, the early bird catches the 60% off iPhones, so large crowds often gather outside the front doors long before sunrise. It’s all part of the ritual.

But the aptly named Black Friday also has a dark side. In 2008 a Wal-Mart employee in New York was trampled by frenzied shoppers. In that case, the store opened at 5 a.m., and a crowd of 2,000 shoppers had already gathered by 4:55 – with no more than ten employees present to attempt crowd control. As they pressed up against the glass doors, the glass eventually gave way, and the stampede trampled and killed 34-year-old temporary holiday employee Jdimytai Damour, who was 6’5″, 270 pounds. Others suffered minor injuries. But people who had spent almost a whole day in line were too determined to quit shopping.

Police later suggested that the stampeders could potentially face criminal charges, but there were simply too many people to accurately identify the wrongdoers. But Damour’s family did sue Wal-Mart for wrongful death in “failing to provide adequate security and for creating an environment of mayhem that led to the death.” Wal-Mart settled the case and agreed to implement new security precautions, and OSHA fined them $7,000 (the statutory maximum).

Last week, OSHA released a list of tips to protect retail employees from injury during holiday promotions. OSHA suggests using an online lottery for the most popular items to prevent the rush of the crowds, pre-sale emergency planning for stores, and even barricades during the biggest sales. Another OSHA idea is to hand out numbered wristbands as shoppers arrive, so that the latecomers will be less likely to push their way to the front of the throng. And by all means, the retail stores should never exceed their maximum occupancy. Since Damour’s death, many Wal-Mart stores stay open 24 hours, throughout Thanksgiving and into Black Friday, to prevent another fatal bottleneck.

So if you haven’t eaten too much turkey, get out there and boost the economy this Black Friday.  Of course, it might be safer to look for deals online. But if stores adequately implement OSHA’s guidelines, this type of tragedy should never be repeated.

— Caroline Fleming

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9 Responses to Black Friday Bargains: Making Sure “Doorbuster” Remains a Metaphor

  1. Henson Millsap says:

    This is a problem that appears to be getting worse, or is at least gaining more publicity. Just in the last week there have been fights and riots at shoe stores across the nation during the release of the retro Air Jordan Concord shoes, and there was also a stabbing death in London during their day-after-Christmas sales. I agree that there need to be stricter OSHA safety regulations placed on companies to prevent these sorts of incidents where the mob mentality reigns.

  2. Whitney says:

    Despite society’s increasing reliance on technology, I question whether online deals will ever replace the traditional Black Friday stampede. If they were to, the deals surely wouldn’t be quite as good. For instance, shoppers fought over a $2 waffle iron in Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart isn’t making money on that waffle iron. They sell it so cheaply solely to get individuals into the store, where they will hopefully be induced to by other goods (which may be marked up in price). Finding a great Black Friday deal online probably doesn’t entrap customers into making extra purchases in the same way.

    As for me, no deal could get me to brave the Black Friday crowds!

  3. David Rutenberg says:

    While I can see how increased civil or administrative penalties could help ensure the safety of shoppers, I doubt that OSHA or Congress would move to increase such penalties at this time. In any case, given the incidents described in the article and other comments, there appears to be a certain degree of irrationality and mob mentality related to the shoppers. I understand that the companies have some role to play in whipping them into a frenzy, but I think that there may be ways that the companies, without the threat of increased penalties, can decrease that opening door stampede.

    One way may be to follow Amazon’s “Today’s Deals” model where a really good deal is offered once every hour or few (on top of the other good prices) so that people who are interested in the individual good deals will decide on going to the particular store at different parts during the day. This will spread the crowd out over the sale period.

    Another approach may be to shift some of the best deals online to keep people from coming at all. Or to have some great deals available at store opening hours so people stay home to shop and then go to the stores, preventing the opening bell rush.

  4. Stephen Josey says:

    OSHA should think about making some of these safety tips mandatory. This year’s Black Friday was no different from year’s past – a woman pepper sprayed her fellow shoppers during a rush for a certain “hot” item. It may be time that OSHA give these safety tips more teeth. Certain stores already put precautions into place – at many outlet malls, stores restrict the number of customers they allow in the store at any one time on Black Friday (well below the maximum capacity threshold). This hasn’t really hampered demand; lines outside of these stores seem to hold up through out the night. I’d like to see big box stores such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy utilizing these tactics. Most of the horror stories that we hear about occur in these giant retailer settings. It would seem appropriate for these stores to implement guest limits for the safety of their employees and customers.

  5. Christina Santana says:

    I agree with the above posts as well. It has been reported that retailers made $11.4 billion on Black Friday this year. Imposing a fine of $7,000 on a giant retailer that has garnered tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on Black Friday will do little (if anything) to alter its incentives to encourage a consumer frenzy.

    In an article for the New York times, economist Robert H. Frank proposes a solution to a different Black Friday problem that could be applied in this context. Concerned that Black Friday sales that begin late Thursday night or in the wee hours of Friday morning will prevent retail employees from enjoying Thanksgiving with their loved ones, Frank proposes a 6-6-6 plan. The 6-6-6 plan would impose a national 6 percent sales tax on sales made between 6 pm on Thanksgiving and 6 am on Black Friday.

    Instead of imposing the plan from 6 pm to 6 am, the government can impose the tax hike from 6 pm Thursday to 6 am on Monday morning. This weekend of increased taxes would: (1) create a new source of revenue and (2) would encourage consumers to participate in “Cyber-Monday,” instead of Black Friday. By encouraging virtual sales, retailers will be able to foster a consumer frenzy without physically hurting its consumers.

  6. Cal Albritton says:

    I agree with the comments above. Simply, these doorbuster sales are good for business, and if this incident has shown us anything, it’s that whatever bad publicity from a death or whatever minimal fines and settlements these businesses incur is vastly outweighed by the profits from having a doorbuster sale.

    So what do we do to prevent deaths in the future? I’m not sure this is an area in which there is a legal solution. The family members already retain the right to obtain redress in tort. Furthermore, increased OSHA fines might increase compliance costs and deter socially useful savings for consumers If there’s one thing WalMart needs, it’s a very public media shaming.

  7. Joanna Collins says:

    I am pleased to see that OSHA has taken action to encourage safer Black Friday conditions.

    On the one hand, no matter how many precautions a store takes, it cannot always control the behavior of its customers. For example, at a Los Angeles Wal-Mart, a woman used pepper spray on fellow shoppers just 10 minutes after the doors opened, injuring multiple people in the resulting stampede away from her. In such cases, it is not clear that Wal-Mart should be held responsible – could the store really have predicted or prevented that shopper’s outrageous and shocking conduct?

    On the other hand, when companies foster an environment of fierce competition and shopping frenzy, they have a responsibility to minimize the risk of danger. I think OSHA’s best suggestions are to use a lottery system for hot ticket items or use wristbands at the door – such measures would prevent the urge for customers to trample and pepper spray each other in pursuit of limited deals.

    However, I think Erin makes a good point that a $7000 fine is unlikely to significantly deter a company like Wal-Mart. Moreover, OSHA’s suggestions are just “guidelines”, which use soft language such as “consider using Internet lottery for ‘hot’ items.” Companies are likely to be driven by their own need to beat out competitors in Black Friday profit, meaning that OSHA’s guidelines are not the primary consideration in their holiday planning. It seems like either the statutory fines should be increased or these guidelines should be mandated for all stores participating in Black Friday extravaganzas.

  8. Francie Kammeraad says:

    First, I’m glad that may stores now offer Black Friday deals online, and often those deals last through Cyber Monday. It’s better for everyone. Stores still get a sales boost, customers don’t have to brave the chaos by entering the stores, and fewer employees have to give up their Holiday to work.

    Second, I hope that people don’t forget about Small Business Saturday. Small Business Saturday was created in 2010 to promote America’s independently owned small and local businesses. It asks people to focus on spending money at small businesses to help fuel our economy. It’s been hugely popular with social media (Facebook and Twitter). You can find more information and support the cause here: http://smallbusinesssaturday.com/

  9. Erin Reimer says:

    While I appreciate the efforts that OSHA has put forth in reaction to and anticipation of the crazed levels that Black Friday has recently reached, I have to wonder what effect they can actually have. A fine of $7,000 each year is nothing to a huge company like Wal-Mart – it is the civil suit that serves as actual deterrence, while the OSHA suggestions/guidelines are probably useful to Black Friday stores. I must wonder if the implementation of OSHA’s minor statutory fines are merely a waste of our judicial time and resources.