Black Friday – At what cost?

Another “Black Friday” retail sales event has come and gone. Again, this year there were reports of customer injuries, and at least one reported fatality due directly to the reported failure of retailers to take proper precautions. Injuries to customers happen every year. There has been enough history to put retailers on notice that they have a “duty” to protect their invited guests.

Retailers spend huge dollar amounts advertising the events, trying to draw as many customers to their stores. Once the customers have arrived, many do not know how to control the crowds waiting to ascend the store. Here are some tips on crowd control for those special event sales:

• Spend time planning for the event well in advance. Find out what the history of major sale events is for your sales area.

• Train your employees. If you are expecting a large crowd, invest in some simple crowd control management for key members of management and loss prevention staff.

• Hire uniformed security officers who specialize in event crowd management. Hire off-duty police officers to patrol the interior of the store and the parking lot. This may cost some dollars upfront, but could save major dollars down the road if something goes wrong.

• If you employ a loss prevention staff, make sure they know what their job function is during a major event sale. The focus should not be catching shoplifters, but concentrating on safety and crowd control issues.

• Notify the local police in advance of an event sale. This gives them the option to increase their manpower and patrols.

• Erect stanchions or post barricades to control the influx of customers. Use steel barricades; although they are more expensive, they are also much sturdier. This equipment can be rented.

• Some retailers issue numbered coupons to customers waiting in line. If the retailer has several special priced items available, then color-code the numbered coupons. Only hand out coupons for the numbers of special priced items available for purchase in the store. Numbered wristbands also work well. Customers who fail to get a coupon or wristband can opt out, thus making the line more organized.

• Have an employee work the line handing out maps of the store, indicating where the sale merchandise is located in the store. Place special signing in the store – directing customers to the sale merchandise. Station key employees around the store who are able to communicate to management when suspected problem areas develop.

• Management should talk to the customers in line about the sale. Give precautions about safety and the customer etiquette expected. Don’t forget to document the safety measures dictated to the customers waiting in line. If something goes wrong, this documentation could work in your favor in case of a lawsuit.

• I have heard of retailers hiring entertainers, such as clowns and magicians, to occupy the attention of customers waiting in lines. This has the effect of grabbing the crowd’s attention and directing focus away from waiting for the doors to open.

• The practice of letting crowds in the store and allowing them to gather at the foot of pallets is an option. The crowd is already in the store, thus eliminating the door-buster rush. You still need to control the crowd at the displays. At least one retailer did this. They even had crowd control barriers setup around the displays. The store held a big countdown and the employees started handing out the boxes of VCRs. Apparently, however, even this was not fast enough and the crowd rushed the display. The store staff then threw the boxes up into the crowd. One of the boxes hit a customer in the head and caused severe brain damage. This customer was also pushed to the floor and stepped on.

As a result of the recent “Black Friday” sales event at the Long Island, N.Y., Wal-Mart, it is reported that New York City Councilman James F. Gennaro is working on a “door-buster bill” that would require large retailers to make proper security arrangements when special sales event like “Black Friday” are likely to attract large crowds.

If retailers fail to respond appropriately to protect customers during these special sales events, no doubt local governments are going to take the necessary steps to mandate security and crowd control.

About the author: Curtis Baillie is a retail security management consultant who is the principal consultant at Security Consulting Strategies, LLC, based out of West Chester, Penn. He is a Board Certified Security Consultant and a member of the International Association of Professional Security Consultants (IAPSC). He also authors a blog on security and LP issues.