Sunday, November 22, 2009

Black Friday Madness

We are a few days away from one of the consumer- and media-frenzy days of the year. Perhaps second only to election day, Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving when most retailers launch massive early morning sales promotions—is an occasion for the media to trot out their vast resources to cover the story. Helicopters hover over crowded shopping centers, reporters wade into throngs of shoppers, cameramen angle for the best shot of the hordes galloping into and thrashing about, and sometimes trashing, stores in search of loss-leader bargains galore. At the end of the day, reporters opine on the meaning behind Black Friday as a portend of full holiday season sales, even though the history of retailing during the last decade or longer reveals that Black Friday no longer carries such importance. Rather, the weekend before Christmas and the week after have eclipsed it, while the Internet has intermediated it as well.

But the public needs its images, so Black Friday has turned into a circus, promoted by a willing combination of media and retail companies, each group with its own economic wish list it wants fulfilled.

For the record, Black Friday refers to the day when, in the past, retailers finally saw their balance sheets for the year turn profitable because of all the post-Thanksgiving sales rung up. True or not, the day after Thanksgiving has come to enjoy notoriety beyond its real importance.

This year’s Black Friday also will commemorate the senseless death of a Wal-Mart temporary worker, Jdimytai Damour , trampled last year by unruly crowds in a Valley Stream, N.Y., store. The incident gave an unfortunate true meaning to the term “door buster” sales.

For more than 30 years I observed retail companies plan the hype for Black Friday, with little regard to customer or worker safety. Last year’s tragedy, not the first time life and limb sustained damage, prompted renewed emphasis on security. The NY Times recently detailed some of the precautions Wal-Mart and other retailers will employ. Tactics will include opening Thanksgiving morning at 6 a.m. and remaining open through Friday evening, as well as patrolling entrances and supervising lines near most-wanted merchandise that will go on sale at 5 a.m. Friday. Here’s a link to the article, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/business/11security.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=black%20friday&st=cse.

But lost amid the rush to buy and sell is the loss of dignity foisted on our consumer society. Why do retailers create the conditions that turn customers into desperadoes? Why do retailers turn their workers into hall monitors at best, untrained policemen at worst? Why will they now steal from them one of the few days, Thanksgiving, when they could be home with their families? These are not life’s necessities being promoted. Customers could wait another day to buy, and workers another day to sell, flat screen televisions or digital cameras.

With an unforgiving economy making shoppers more eager than ever to secure the lowest price possible, I fear for the safety of anyone who is foolish or desperate enough to shop early, or unfortunate enough to have to work those pre-dawn hours. Last November in my retail industry magazine, I editorialized that “the frenzy of early-morning specials demeans shoppers and workers and puts them at physical risk. I fear that this year’s economic condition will supercharge Black Friday madness. Any store that does not safeguard shoppers and staff with adequate security will be negligent, morally if not criminally.”

Let’s hope that sanity and security abound this Black Friday and that we have no more economic casualties like Jdimytai Damour.

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