Keys to keeping the peace on Black Friday

According to a recent survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, 140 million people plan on shopping online and in stores this Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Of those who said they planned to shop this weekend, nearly one-quarter (23.5 percent) plan to do so on Thanksgiving Day, but the overwhelming majority (69.1 percent) indicated that they plan to do their shopping on Black Friday.

Although Black Friday sales events are not a new phenomenon, they do present several unique challenges that retail security professionals do not handle on a regular basis. Perhaps the most significant of these is crowd management and controlling the flow of people into and out of a store. Not only is this important for the safety of shoppers, but for store employees as well. In 2008, a worker at a Wal-Mart store in New York was trampled to death by a crowd of frenzied customers who broke through the doors.

It’s because of incidents like this that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration now sends out letters annually to retailers across the country with a fact sheet that provides crowd management guidelines. According to OSHA, crowd management plans should, at least, include:

  • On-site trained security personnel or police officers.
  • Barricades or rope lines for pedestrians that do not start right in front of the store's entrance.
  • The implementation of crowd control measures well in advance of customers arriving at the store.
  • Emergency procedures in place to address potential dangers.
  • Methods for 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.

In addition to managing crowds, loss prevention managers also have to be on the lookout for people looking to commit crimes of opportunity against the retailer, as well as customers. SIW recently caught up with several retail security experts to discuss the steps stores need to take in preparation for this year’s Black Friday sales.

SIW: What are your biggest security concerns when it comes to Black Friday? Why?

Richard Mellor, vice president, loss prevention, National Retail Foundation: I would say, generally speaking, the safety and well being of customers is a natural shift that takes place on these very busy shopping days versus the typical surveillance for people stealing merchandise and so forth. What takes place on these very busy, crowded days is (security/loss prevention professionals) have to be watchful in looking out for the safety of customer. And during these busy times where there is a lot of confusion and people rushing about, it’s not unusual for people to slip, fall, trip over things… so the security and loss prevention personnel almost shift to being watchful for those types of hazards that are in the way and that customers have difficulty getting past – children, baby strollers and things like that tend to be a little bit hazardous for people to get past and do their shopping. It’s one thing to be looking out for hazards on the selling floor that just kind of naturally appear there; when merchandise is being replenished and they roll out a cart to bring the merchandise out as shoppers buy it. Things like that you have to be always concerned that it does not provide for a tripping hazard. But the other aspect of it that is oftentimes overlooked is the dishonest opportunist. In the middle of all of the commotion, shoppers will often leave a handbag just out of their reach, a wallet lying on a counter, a credit card left behind sitting on a counter or an identification (card) that an opportune, dishonest thief takes advantage of and grabs. Loss prevention and security people have to have their eyes on these other things that are going on around the shopping experience to look out for the well being of the customer.

SIW: Does the fact that many retailers have pushed their Black Friday sales back into Thursday evening helped alleviate or added more to the plate of loss prevention professionals?

Mellor: I would say it adds more to the plate of loss prevention people as well as the sales people because they’re oftentimes the same people working throughout those two days. They’re going to open on Thursday for a good reason, they want lots of people to come out and shop on Thursday so now you’re going to have lots of people shopping on Thursday and lots of people shopping on Friday.

Curtis Baillie, principal, security consulting strategies, LLC: I think this has gone a long way in making Black Friday sales events much safer. Anytime you reduce the "crush" at the door and make it more convenient for those who want to shop you are making for a much safer event.

SIW: As these sales events become bigger with each passing year, have retailers become more adept at crowd control or are there still things that need to be done better?

Mellor: Yes, they have become much better at adapting to crowd control. The same retailer learns every year on how to better manage the crowd, how to flow them into the store and provide a little bit safer environment .The safety aspects of how do you get the people through the entrance, how do you get them through the store to the area that might have the biggest markdowns and best sales, how do you strategically place that merchandise so the customer can get to it easily without going all the way through the store. Crowd control is not only the physical presence of people to answer questions as the customer comes through the door, but it is also making it easy for store staff to direct them visually.

Baillie: Retailers have become more educated in staging these events. I think more attention needs to be paid to parking lot security. What we have seen in the past couple of years is an increase in robberies in mall parking lots. The bad guys know shoppers possibly carrying more cash and have major purchases. People fall easy prey to parking lot robberies.

SIW: What kind of impact does Black Friday have on shoplifting? What steps can retailers take to minimize the damage?

Mellor: The notorious organized retail crime-type thieves that hammer away at retailers throughout the year – this is not the kind of day that they go out. It’s too hectic for them and they can’t operate in the same kind of secrecy without customers being right around where they are despite the fact that sales people and other store associates are busy answering questions for the honest customers that are out there shopping. There are too many eyes and ears in the store for them to do what they need to do without being seen or caught or someone taking notice. But your opportune shoplifters that are not professionals, they see an opportunity with so many people standing around and they say, ‘I can stick this one thing or two things in my bag, under my coat or in my pockets without being seen.’ And that provides a challenge for the security and loss prevention people.

What steps can retailers take to minimize the damage? It’s all about operating your store as best you can, meaning keep the lines moving and allow people who are not specifically assigned to ringing transactions to keep an eye on what else is going on in the store at the same time.   

Baillie: There is always an increase of shoplifting during the holidays. During major shopping events like Black Friday, retailers should be paying attention to their entry/exit doors for people pushing large amounts of merchandise out the doors. Have employees and security personnel pay attention to the back walls of the store, looking for stockpiles of merchandise that has gathered by someone, ready to take out the door. It's hard to spot and track individual shoplifters during events like these.

SIW: Considering the number of seasonal employees that retailers have brought in to help with the holiday shopping season, what kind of safeguards do retailers need to have in place to deal with potential dishonest employees?

Mellor:  It’s not that that is a widespread problem, but sometimes people do take a job during the holiday season with the expectation of taking something from these retailers without paying for it. It’s a very small percentage of people who do that. But as the store manager starts to position people for the big sales events, especially throughout the holiday season, they try and limit the opportunities for (employees that are not well known) to take advantage of those moments when the store is really busy. Typically, they will have their more well-seasoned employees who work throughout the year handling the cash, credit cards, checks, etc., at the point-of-sale terminal and temporary employees are given duties where they are less likely to come in contact with the money and credit cards of customers.  

Baillie: Some areas to consider are tight stockroom controls and cash controls. This is the time of year that attracts dishonest employees whose only goal is to get as much as they can before the losses are discovered.

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