Black Friday doorbuster sales

Take a nation of retailers on edge about falling sales. Toss in a crowd of bargain-hungry consumers addicted to deals. Keep them apart for hours before dawn with only a glass door separating them, and you have the makings of a Black Friday calamity.

It has been a year since a store worker was trampled to death in a day-after-Thanksgiving doorbuster stampede at a Long Island, N.Y., Wal-Mart. Now, a week before the busiest and most heavily promoted shopping day of the year arrives again, the retail industry is going out of its way to make sure this year’s holiday shopping season doesn’t spin out of control.

The National Retail Federation, the retail industry trade group, issued for the first time crowd control guidelines as financial pressures compel retailers to get more aggressive with promotions and shoppers get more aggressive about finding deals.

In another first, Wal-Mart will keep almost all of its stores open on Thanksgiving and through the night into Friday, spokesman David Tovar said. The doorbuster deals will still begin at 5 a.m., but the measure will allow the discount chain to avoid long lines of shoppers waiting outside the door, he said.

“There’s a great psychological pressure that happens around waiting for a door to open,” said Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at Retail Systems Research LLC. “I’ve never felt doorbusters were good for the industry. Nobody makes a lot of money on them. All they do is create a lot of frenzy.”

That’s particularly true on Black Friday, which gets its nickname from the fact that retailers have said they begin turning a profit for the year on that day.

Despite retailers’ attempts to get consumers to start their holiday shopping early, 16 percent of consumers expect to begin on Black Friday, up from 10 percent in 2008, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs 2009 Holiday Spending survey.

“It’s no secret that customers are working hard to find the best deals,” said Rhett Asher, vice president of loss prevention at the National Retail Federation. “Retailers are going to have to go to great lengths … to drive traffic into the stores.”

The trade group on Monday issued a list of measures retailers should take to keep crowds from turning unruly.

The recommendations include placing stanchions or barriers inside and outside of the store to manage traffic flow, announcing the availability and locations of products over the store intercom, handing out vouchers for limited supplies of merchandise to the first customers in line, handing out a map of the store, spreading out sale items throughout the store and giving store managers authority to make decisions as events unfold.

Best Buy Co. holds dress rehearsals the week of Black Friday to train staff on handling the rush of shoppers. The consumer electronics chain also passes out product vouchers before doors open.

“Just letting people know that if you’re among the first 50 in line, your product is guaranteed, helps,” said Monica Salamon, store manager at the new Best Buy on North Michigan Avenue. Last year more than 300 people lined up outside the Best Buy store at Armitage and Elston avenues starting at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving, she said.

Several years ago, Sears and Kmart began handing out tickets to customers in line for doorbuster sales and announcing when sale items are out of stock, said spokesman Chris Brathwaite.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. agreed to improve its Black Friday crowd control management in the wake of the Long Island trampling death as part of an agreement in May with the Nassau County district attorney’s office. Wal-Mart said it planned to expand the steps to the rest of its stores in time for the 2009 holiday shopping season.

Wal-Mart will address how customers approach, enter and move throughout the store, among other issues.

“The Wal-Mart incident last year made a lot of retailers rethink their approach,” said Dan de Grandpre, editor of “But from the retailers’ standpoint, they want to make the TV news with the rush of shoppers going into the store. That’s good press. It may take the fun out of it, but it will be safer.”

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.