Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tragedy on Black Friday

Now that a little time has passed, we can reflect on the recent Black Friday tragedy where a Wal-Mart Employee Was Trampled to Death in New York.
By 4:55, with no police officers in sight, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in with the weight of the assault. Six to 10 workers inside tried to push back, but it was hopeless.

Suddenly, witnesses and the police said, the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. One worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34, was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in the stampede that streamed over and around him. Others who had stood alongside Mr. Damour trying to hold the doors were also hurled back and run over, witnesses said.
To say this was all savage behavior would not be an understatement.
Some shoppers who had seen the stampede said they were shocked. One of them, Kimberly Cribbs of Queens, said the crowd had acted like “savages.” Shoppers behaved badly even as the store was being cleared, she recalled.

“When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been (in) line since yesterday morning,’ ” Ms. Cribbs told The Associated Press. “They kept shopping.”
So how did we get from what was supposed to be a promotional event to start the Christmas shopping season to this tragic result? Although Black Friday sounds like something sinister and deadly, the most common usage by merchants and the media simply refers to the beginning of the period in which retailers go from being in the red to being in the black. (i.e., turning a profit).

An interesting NYT article
Media and Retailers Both Built Black Friday offers this observation:

In partnership with retail advertising clients, the news media have worked steadily and systematically to turn Black Friday into a broad cultural event. A decade ago, it was barely in the top 10 shopping days of the year. But once retailers hit on the formula of offering one or two very-low-priced items as loss leaders, media groups began to cover the post-Thanksgiving outing as a kind of consumer sporting event.
So what’s the problem here? All the stores are doing is offering some sales to stimulate business and in these awful economic times, they surely need all the help they can get. The problem lies in the “one or two very-low-priced items as loss leaders” being used to lure customers. Some of these items (like flat-screen TVs) are not only very attractive but are being sold at hundreds of dollars below market level prices to give extra incentive to those who are willing and able to fight the other shoppers to get to these values first.

And it stands to reason that people choosing to stand in line for hours overnight to fight for the best deal aren’t there to go home empty-handed.

NYT reader
Teresa sums it up in her comment to the above article:

Wal-Mart and many other retailers have set up a system that requires antisocial behavior to get the best deal, by severely limiting the number of hot ticket items per store, for example, so that only the most aggressive shoppers are rewarded with the best value. It should therefore not surprise anyone that aggressive, antisocial shoppers are breaking down the doors and trampling people to get those deals.
So while the over-aggressive behavior of the shoppers cannot in any way be condoned, the merchants who use practices that reward this behavior deserve the most blame. There’s certainly nothing wrong with offering special sales to lure customers. But doing this with a tiny number of items sold at a loss is little more than a legalized
Bait and Switch scheme. Ordinarily not offering enough advertised items at a low price constitutes fraud. But the Federal Trade Commission provides a loophole saying that this practice is OK as long as “the advertisement clearly and adequately discloses that supply is limited”.

So the clear solution to all of this is to close this loophole and require merchants to either offer all of their customers items at the sale price that day (instead of encouraging a fight over the few items in stock) or not offer the items at all.

A similar arrangement in which concertgoers fight for the best seats is known as
festival seating.

On December 3, 1979, the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio, was the site of one of the worst rock concert tragedies in United States history. Eleven fans were killed and several dozen others injured in the rush for seating at the opening of a sold-out concert by The Who. The concert was using festival seating. When the crowds waiting outside heard the band performing a soundcheck, they thought the concert was beginning and tried to rush into the still-closed doors, trampling those at the front of the crowd.
For more, check out this
video link. To try and prevent another tragedy like this, festival seating was outlawed in Cincinnati.

But unfortunately, other cities did not follow suit which resulted in Cincinnati losing concerts to other cities that did allow festival seating. So in 2004, festival seating
returned to Cincinnati.

What’s especially sad about both of these tragedies is that they were so avoidable. A little common sense beforehand could have prevented us from having to ask all of the tough questions about how it all happened after lives were lost. Hopefully we will at least have learned our lesson well enough to prevent future tragedies on Black Friday.

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