After the trampling of a 34-year-old Wal-Mart employee on Black Friday, there is bound to be a lot of finger pointing. Some people who were hurt in the incident blame not just Wal-Mart but the Nassau County Police Department as well. The police, the grocery worker’s union, and others blame Wal-Mart. And Wal-Mart seems to be shrugging its shoulders as if to suggest it’s never before heard of mob mentality and crowd control.
The truth is that Wal-Mart, like many other giant retailers throughout the country, knows about consumer behavior. Wal-Mart knows how to work a crowd.
“The safety and security of our customers and associates is our top priority,” the world’s largest retailer said in a statement about the Black Friday trampling death of Jdimytai Damour.
Wal-Mart also said that it hired additional internal security and store associates to deal with the crowds and worked closely with the local police.
“We also erected barricades. Despite all of our precautions, this unfortunate event occurred,” Hank Mullany, a Wal-Mart senior vice president, said in a statement.
However, Wal-Mart didn’t acknowledge its efforts to work the crowd as much as possible before opening its doors in what literally became a “doorbuster” sale.
The crowd outside the Nassau County Wal-Mart began to form at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving. By 5 a.m., 2,000 people were pressed up against the entrance.
As a friend of mine always says whenever she hears or sees something absurd, “take a moment.”
Take a moment to guess what could possibly be in store, literally, that would make hundreds and hundreds of customers willfully leave whatever Thanksgiving festivities they had going on to stand in a parking lot all night in the freezing cold?
Could it have been the promise of coveted merchandise, deeply discounted, but offered only in limited quantities? Imagine a warehouse stocked with hundreds of the best selling MP3 players. You had wanted to buy one but couldn’t because it was too expensive. Then you hear a store advertising that MP3 player you want for an irresistible price, but in order to get one at the advertised “doorbuster” price, you have to beat the crowd because only a handful will be available. And “beating the crowd” means not only a race to the item itself, but possibly an actual fight with other customers over the item because you both reached for it at the same time.
If Wal-Mart cared about the safety and security of its customers more than its holiday profit, then the stampede would not have occurred. You don’t just create an unnatural shortage and then tell people they’d better hurry because supplies are limited and then let a huge crowd gather outside overnight.
And what about the employees? The Wal-Mart model is already notorious for how not to treat an employee, but consider the experience of the store associates and security at the Nassau County Wal-Mart and other retail giants across the country. The holidays must come with a sense of dread because every year, it seems, stores open earlier and earlier.
Store openings seem to impinge on the holidays to a point where they risk becoming one with the holidays. Ten years from now, will Black Friday begin on Thanksgiving morning? Already some stores are opening at midnight on Black Friday while others, like the Nassau County Wal-Mart, require their employees to show up in the middle of the night so that they can get the store ready for the big “blitz.”
Unfortunately for many people, being employed means sacrificing their own holiday plans so that their employer can report more profits.
Vanity Fair editor James Wolcott observes:
“It’s become an arms race between the major chains, and putting a stop to these excesses and exploitations is a stellar case for unionization. I see countless inane interviews with shoppers carrying bags full of booty, interviewer and interviewee competing to see who can be more effing cutesy, but nothing with the cashiers or shelvers after they’ve put in a long shift. How much does a security guard or greeter make at one of these malls? It never occurs to any reporter (or assignment editor) to ask; it would be a breach of journalistic etiquette to try anything that Studs Terkel.”
Is all this a reason to give thanks? Does any of it have anything to do with Christmas spirit? Sometimes you really do have to take a moment.