Preparing for Black Friday

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.

In addition to the aforementioned security strategies, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has also released a list of what steps retailers should take in their crowd management plans including:

  • Barricades or rope lines for pedestrians that do not start right in front of the store's entrance.
  • Implementing crowd control measures well in advance of customers arriving at the store.
  • Emergency procedures in place to address potential dangers.
  • Explaining approach and entrance procedures to the arriving public.
  • Not allowing additional customers to enter the store when it reaches its maximum occupancy level.
  • Not blocking or locking exit doors.

"That certainly is the most important thing, the safety issue. What we’ve seen work and what we hear a lot of people have moved for is it’s more about visibility – making sure you’ve got adequate staff or outside resources," said Wren. "Law enforcement is a great addition just from a deterrent standpoint. Having that presence there is very, very important."

As important as maintaining crowd control is outside the store, retailers must also be cautious about shoplifters or malicious employees looking to take advantage of the crowds inside.

"You have to take some precautions inside the store. You should have store security posted around the store in various places," Baillie said. "If you’re going to have certain areas with special items for sale, you need to have security posted in and around those places. You have to have people at the doors that can observe and know what they’re doing to direct people to specific areas. You have to have special considerations for cash control – having till limits on the registers in the store and removing money from the registers and securing cash, not letting cash build up in the registers because there will be people that will take advantage of that situation."

By and large, Degener said that most shoplifters are leery of crowds, but in some cases, there will be some people that try to use Black Friday crowds to their benefit.

"You’re going to find those bold shoplifters though are going to take advantage of the chaos and maybe try to walk right out the door with large amounts of products almost like a diversion," he said. "You’ve got to be very sensitive to that. They might just punch out through a fire exit door to a car that’s waiting with lots of merchandise."

Another aspect of retail security that’s paramount, but can sometimes get overlooked on Black Friday is making sure that parking lots are secure.

"You’ve really got to start your program in the parking lot. You’ve got to think your brand extends past the building and goes out into the parking lot," Degener said. "When you have all of those additional customers and cars, you really need to increase your security into the parking lot to make sure any kinds of purse thefts, vandalism, car thefts, and all of that is protected. You’ve got to adjust your lighting up to what it needs to be in the parking lot because most of them are on timers nowadays, so if they’re normally shut down, they’ve got to make sure lighting is still in place."        

Retail security experts say stores that have surveillance systems should test them to ensure they’re working properly before a Black Friday sale and to also make sure that they are trained on entry and exit points. Wren said that retailers should also review all of their internal and external processes well before Black Friday.

"How do we receive products? What does our return process look like? What’s the checkout process like? Make sure those are buttoned up and if there are tweaks that need to be made based on the volume of shoppers that are going to be there, make those tweaks," he advised. "And then really understand what the staff requirements are and train and over-train, especially because this is a time where we have a lot of temporary workers coming in just for the holiday season to ensure they’re slotted in the right job and we’re not putting too much on their plate."   

Overall, Baillie thinks that retailers take Black Friday security much more seriously now.

"I think the precautions are pretty much being heeded by the retailers," he said. "You are never going to be able to foresee and forgo every type of incident that can happen. If you have alert store people who are surveying the areas and reporting on any unusual activities, I think it’s easier to detect and possibly forgo those types of incidents."

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