At the Best Buy store in Bel Air, planning for post-Thanksgiving sales began months ago - and involved much more than cutting prices. Employees created security diagrams, planned to disperse bargains around the store to prevent a crowd buildup, and even held "dry runs" by posing as customers.
Detailed planning for the post-Thanksgiving rush is common among retailers this year - and takes on special urgency after a 2008 tragedy at a Long Island Walmart, where a crowd of bargain-seekers pushed down the doors and trampled a security guard to death.
For the first time, the National Retail Federation has issued crowd control guidelines, and retailers are taking measures such as installing barriers or staggering entry times to limit crowding. Even with those moves, some say the marketing techniques that are used to drum up business may contribute to crowds getting out of hand.
The trampling of the security guard "was such a tragic event and generated so much negative publicity not only about Walmart, but it raised questions about Black Friday in general," said Jie Zhang, an associate professor of marketing at the Robert H. School of Business at the University of Maryland. "Many retailers will be very cautious about crowd control this Black Friday, no question."
The weak economy could make the problem worse, as retailers push deals more aggressively and shoppers are more desperate to save, industry officials said.
"The appetite for deals and bargains is elevated," Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, said during a recent conference call about crowd control. "Retailers need to understand that many of these sales and promotional periods might draw customers who are more insistent about getting a good deal."
The industry group's suggestions for controlling crowds include using outside security and line monitors, and giving shoppers tickets or wristbands to redeem certain products. It also endorses the strategy used by Best Buy: spreading sale merchandise throughout the store so people aren't crowded into one area.
Walmart consulted with sports and entertainment crowd-control specialists to come up with a better way to deal with the throngs of shoppers who will descend on its stores this year, said spokeswoman E.R. Anderson.
The world's largest retailer is opening stores for 24 hours on Thanksgiving in hopes of limiting crowds on Black Friday. The retailer wouldn't go into specifics, but said it also has plans to better manage the flow of shoppers throughout the store.
Holly McAslan shops every Black Friday with her husband, who looks for deals on electronics. But she admits the crowds can be a little intimidating, especially when the doors first open.
"I think it's good that they are doing something to add a little sanity to finding bargains," said McAslan, 42, an art teacher who lives in Baltimore. "It's not worth getting trampled on to get a good bargain."
At the Best Buy in Bel Air, employees started planning in August, rather than in September as they did last year, said Amanda Thornton, sales operator and hiring and training coordinator at the store. The store is using many techniques from previous years, but is paying more attention to crowds this year, she said.
Best Buy gives out tickets for "door-buster" items in an attempt to prevent shoppers from jostling for access. It also has employees and security workers walk around outside the store before it opens, talking to the crowd and keeping shoppers calm, she said.
"That helps prevent that ... 'knock people down' atmosphere," Thornton said.
Toys "R" Us is erecting five-foot barriers in front of its stores to control waiting shoppers. It will also let people into the store in small groups at staggered times, issue tickets and expand hours to spread out visits by shoppers on Black Friday.
The Arundel Mills outlet mall will open stores at midnight Thursday but will open the mall doors at 11 p.m. so people can wait inside rather than in the cold. That way, says mall marketing director Wendy Ellis, there won't be a midnight stampede to the stores when the mall doors open.
Perhaps the most dangerous situations occur when stores give the best deals only to the first few dozen shoppers who get inside, said retail consultant Burt P. Flickinger III.
"If you say that you have to be one of the first 25 or 50 people in the store or you don't get the best item at the best price, that can create real consumer chaos and a crisis as people literally go at top speed into the store trying to find the items that literally only last for a few minutes before they're out of stock," said Flickinger, managing director for New York-based Strategic Resource Group. It creates a "stampede mentality," he added.
That's what happened last year at Walmart. Security guard Jdimytai Damour died of asphyxiation when a crowd trying to get to deals as the store opened at 5 a.m. broke open electronic doors and rushed in, crushing him. Others were also injured in the melee.
Walmart was ordered to set up a fund for those injured in the incident and come up with a safety plan for its New York stores. The retailer didn't provide details.
Even shoppers who get a rush being in the crowds say the stores could do more to tame them.
Lachandra Colbert, a 36-year-old social worker who lives in Owings Mills, goes shopping by herself every Black Friday - she loves the excitement even though some years she barely buys anything.
"I just like to go out in it," Colbert said. "I love it."
But Colbert said that the initial rush into the store can be a bit intimidating. She usually waits in her car in the parking lot of Walmart until the store opens and heads in after the crowd waiting outside has dispersed.
"I'm not into the mayhem of getting into the store and busting down doors," she said.
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