That old Christmas spirit

That old Christmas spirit

One year after a frenzied crowd trampled a Wal-Mart worker to death in Valley Stream, New York, the country’s retailers are readying themselves for Black Friday, the spending-maddened shopping day after Thanksgiving. In addition to offering $299 laptops and $100 GPS systems, companies are putting new safety measures into place to ensure there isn’t a repeat of 2008’s tragedy, when a temporary store employee named Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by an unruly crowd. Wal-Mart has completely revised its crowd management plan, the new one developed by experts who have crowd-controlled events from the Super Bowl to the Olympics. The plan calls for designated routes that customers will use to approach and enter stores, as well as shop, pay, and exit. There will be a customized plan for each store in an effort to have as seamless and orderly a day after Thanksgiving as possible. The biggest change for Wal-Mart is that a majority of its stores (not including its Supercenters) will open their doors on Thanksgiving morning at 6 a.m.; they will remain open through Friday evening. In 2008, stores closed Thanksgiving evening; they reopened early on Friday morning. In keeping its stores open 24 hours, the company hopes to create a steady flow of customers rather than the huge crowds that form outside of stores during the wee small hours on Friday. This year, Wal-Mart customers also won’t have to battle their neighbors in order to claim that flat-screen TV. Instead, shoppers will enter the store and line up for the A-List items on their lists. When the sale begins Friday at 5 a.m., Wal-Mart employees will supervise lines, giving customers merchandise in the order in which they got onto line; this will continue until items run out of stock. (Only a small number of Wal-Mart stores won’t open 24 hours; most Supercenters already are open 24 hours.) A recurring problem has been the logjam at store entrances. Like many big-box retail stores, Wal-Mart doesn’t utilize multiple entrances in order to spread around customer traffic. Beginning this year, the retailer will station employees in front of the stores to direct shoppers and keep the flow of consumers moving. Aggressive customers are common on Black Friday. So crowd management plans, which change from retailer to retailer, are of paramount importance. They are even more important in lean times, when cost-conscious shoppers expect more bang for their buck, and retailers intend to shore up flagging sales with blow-out deals. For the first time, the National Retail Federation (NRF) has created a set of guidelines for crowd management at retail stores. The rules note that special sales and blockbuster discounts generally lead to swollen crowds. Many stores plan to serve beverages to customers, or provide entertainment while shoppers are waiting in line, in order to maintain calm (and order). And retailers say that building rapport with customers makes longer lines and news of sellouts easier to take.