If you’re looking for bad news on this Black Friday, you’re probably Googling “Walmart.” The massive discount retailer has been the scene of injuries, arrests, pepper-spraying and general pandemonium at locations across the country today.
Asked about the stories of fights over sale items and arrests, Walmart touted its pre-planning for the biggest shopping day of the year, though acknowledged the chain is “always learning” about how to deal with the crowds that pack its stores.
“I would just tell you that the plans we have in place were developed with nationally recognized crowd experts and really were the first of their kind,” company spokesperson Greg Rossiter told TPM Friday. “Having said that, we always look at the way we run our stores.”
Those plans Walmart used this year were drawn up following much darker incidents than the ones that have marred the day at some locations of the massive retailer. In 2008, a store employee was trampled to death as a crowd surged into a New York Walmart to snatch up deeply discounted merchandise in the ritual that kicks off the holiday shopping season. A lawyer for the family of the dead man chided Walmart for not providing the employee with crowd control experience.
The 2008 death was sparked by more than 1,000 shoppers who broke down locked store doors to get at deeply discounted TVs and other items inside. That came during the simpler time when Black Friday sales actually began on Black Friday, rather than in the late evening of Thanksgiving Day like this year.
Many of the Walmart incidents in 2011 seem connected to the way the store has set up the sales in the years since, which this year began at 10 PM and midnight on Thanksgiving. The sales were described this way in a corporate press release:
10 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24) - Top Toys, Home and Apparel
Midnight on Black Friday (Nov. 25) - Electronics! Electronics! Electronics!
Rossiter said the timing of the sales was driven by customers who told Walmart they preferred to “to stay up later in the day rather than getting up early the next morning” for sales that kicked off in the wee hours. The sales didn’t include as many customers queuing outside the store, thanks to policies that keep many Walmarts open 24 hours a day. So customers were already in the stores and directed to sale items under tarps placed around each location strategically.
“We might position some of the items in housewares, some in apparel, so you have the traffic in the store is managed so that it is evenly distributed,” Rossiter said.
This is where the trouble started. As the Los Angeles Times reported first in a tale that repeated itself across the country in reports Friday, customers already milling around the Porter Ranch, CA Walmart lost their cool when sale time came around.
The customers were already in the store when a whistle signaled the start of the Black Friday sale at 10 p.m., sending shoppers hurtling in search of deeply discounted items.
[A witness] said that by the time he arrived at the video games, the display had been torn down. Employees attempted to hold back the scrum of shoppers and pick up merchandise even as customers trampled the video games and DVDs strewn on the floor.
Rossiter said the store does try to mitigate this kind of situation, first spacing out the merchandise and letting customers who are waiting know they’re likely to be too far back in line to snag one of the limited deeply-discounted products.
“They manage the queue,” the spokesperson said.
Walmart is a huge company, with a number of locations vastly larger than its competitors. Rossiter preferred to focus on what went right rather than what went terribly wrong at a few sites.
“Overall, it’s been a very safe event,” he told TPM. “There are thousands of Walmart stores open for Black Friday, and there were a few unfortunate incidents but mostly” people were able to shop for bargains without trouble, he said.