Preparing for Black Friday

Industry experts share crowd management, loss prevention tips for annual shopping bonanza

Later this week, millions of Americans will flock to retail stores across the country for the annual holiday sales event known as Black Friday. These sales, which are characterized by steep discounts on big ticket item, have become synonymous with dangerous, and is some cases, deadly behavior from shoppers.

According to retail security consultant Curtis Baillie, when Black Friday sales first began, security wasn’t a top priority at many stores. He said that all changed, however, when a Walmart worker was trampled to death at Green Acres Mall in New York in 2008.

"When they first started, there wasn’t virtually any thought given to security during these events," said Baillie. "Since the incident with Walmart, I think retailers have actually taken active participation and steps to make it a safer event. I think that is evident throughout the industry because you’re not seeing the types of incidents that you saw just a few years ago."

In recent years, retailers have taken steps to control the throngs of patrons at stores by implementing a variety of different tactics. In fact, "Black Friday" may not even be an appropriate name for the occasion as many stores have started rolling their sales back into Thanksgiving night. Earlier this month, Walmart announced that its sales would take place in different phases beginning at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

"Well, that could be good for customer flow, of course that’s always been the biggest issue as they started doing these Black Friday (sales) is that everyone lines up at the door and then you have this mass amount of people pushing themselves into the store and you’re seeing elderly people trampled, etc.," said Steven Degener, a former vice president of loss prevention at a Fortune 500 company. Degener, who has nearly 30 years of experience in retail security, now runs the Loss Prevention Academy, an online LP training portal for small businesses and people looking to get into the industry.  

"As long as you advertise the different phases and what’s going to be available, you’re going to get people showing up who actually want the items that are being rolled out," Baillie said. "I think what they did last year, opening up early and remaining open and not having the countdown, so to speak, for the grand opening of a Black Friday event, I think that helped a lot."

Several other retailers, including Target, Sears and Toy R Us, will also be running sales promotions beginning on Thanksgiving Day.

"I think it’s more a macro retail merchandising strategy to kind of drive the most efficient process," said Andrew Wren, president of Wren Solutions, which provides security hardware and software for the loss prevention industry. "Anything we can do to kind of reduce the volume at one given time and reduce the stress on employees is valuable from a loss prevention perspective."  

And whether it’s rolling out deals in phases or simply opening at a different time on Thanksgiving Day, industry experts say that all of these things can help with crowd control.

"They almost need to treat it like a bar. There are only so many patrons that can go into a bar, so you basically have to control it," Degener explained. "You say in this store we’re only going to allow 30 people every minute to go into the store and you try and manage the flow of people. Most of the horror stories you see on TV, it’s when they open the doors and everybody at once starts pushing their way in, so you’ve got to control the flow of customers into the store."   

Regardless of which day a retailer decides to hold their sales event, there are still best practices that need to be adhered to if security managers want to prevent shopping bedlam in their stores. Among the ways that stores can maintain order during Black Friday include; using stanchions to have people lineup in a single, orderly fashion; handing out color-coded vouchers for specific items that there are only a limited number of; and, having a security presence outside the story, whether it be private security or police officers.

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