Here’s something to remember today if you’re out seeking that Black Friday deal of all deals: All those advertisements that hype a hot bargain on a limited supply of items can shorten the fuse of that person pushing the shopping cart beside you.
On rare occasion, the quest for heavily discounted merchandise by throngs of shoppers has even led to stampedes and brawls. There’s even a website, BlackFridayDeathCount.com, tracking the mayhem.
“This behavior would be understandable if we were in a disaster situation and this was the last loaf of bread,” said Kirk Kristofferson, assistant professor of marketing at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business and one of the researchers behind a study about ads and aggression that was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
But throwing elbows and punches over discounted smartphones? “Just mind-blowing,” he said.
Retailers need to get consumers excited enough about the deals to rouse them from turkey and stuffing stupors without working them into such a frenzy someone gets hurt.
Bryan Nagel, a Target Chicago District team leader, said customers at the nine stores he oversees are generally well-behaved but do get “a little amped up.”
Crowd management preparations start as far back as September, said Nagel, who likens Black Friday to the “start of the playoffs” for retailers. Employees study game footage — video from in-store cameras from last year’s Black Friday _ to see where they can improve operations and plan out safe places for customers to line up before doors open.
Target, Wal-Mart and Toys R Us all hand out tickets or wristbands on a first-come, first-served basis for certain hot items where demand may outrun supply. That means customers know in advance whether or not they’re likely to get one of those door-busters and don’t need to fight to be the first to get their hands on one.
Since Wal-Mart is open for business before in-store Black Friday deals start at 6 p.m. Thursday, issuing wristbands also means customers can continue shopping instead of standing in line by the 55-inch Philips 4K TV or DJI drone, both of which will require a wristband this year. The retailer also has store-specific crowd management and security plans, said spokeswoman Danit Marquardt.
At Toys R Us, senior store managers and security officers monitor crowds outside stores and will step in if they notice customers acting erratically or an altercation building, spokeswoman Jessica Offerjost said in an email.
Retailers also try to make stores easier to navigate to get shoppers in and out, reducing both congestion and stress.
J.C. Penney posts “Black Friday Sale” signs and a single shiny balloon above each “spotlight” deal in the same chartreuse, black and red color scheme it uses in its Black Friday sale circular and online ads, said spokeswoman Kate Coultas. Kohl’s also marks its door-busters with balloons.
Toys R Us has senior employees known as GPS Navigators — that’s “Guru for Play Stuff” — stationed at the front of each store throughout the holidays to help customers who don’t know Hatchimals from Shopkins and point them in the right direction. Wal-Mart created a seasonal “Holiday Helper” job, with employees who will direct customers to the shortest checkout line or fetch items while shoppers wait at the register.
Ads that emphasized limited-time events, like one-day-only sales, were not linked to greater aggression in his study. Kristofferson thinks that’s because those shoppers are competing against a deadline, not each other. But since many shoppers already expect stores may run out of some heavily promoted items on Black Friday, it’s not clear whether omitting “while supplies last” from those ads would help keep customers cool-headed.
While supplies are always finite, Wal-Mart does its best to keep up with demand and doesn’t artificially limit availability to boost buzz around items, Steve Bratspies, the retailer’s chief merchandising officer, said earlier this month.
“We’re not big on putting a product on the cover of our circular and then not having it in stores,” Bratspies said.