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Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Walmart tragedy.

My thoughts are all over the place after this. The tragic events in India notwithstanding, right now, a family is planning a funeral over basically a Black Friday early bird special gone wrong—for no reason. This wasn’t even a robbery. (Of course, the death of any employee sucks, but this is just pointless.) Walmart has already come out and said that the health and well-being of their employees is the most important thing, but that just rings false. Does anyone outside PR really believe this?

We’ve all seen this stuff last year, and the year before, and so on. To imply that the potential for this tragic stampede was something taken seriously is disingenuous at best. The industry has played the odds for too long, and yesterday it caught up with them. It doesn’t take working in retail to know that when you have a parking lot full of people as this one location did, combined with a mad dash mindset already stoked by the store, no good was going to follow when the doors were opened.

Since this happened, I’ve scanned different sites and blogs to get an idea of what people are saying about this, and what I’ve read may even be more tragic than the incident itself. Everyone blaming it on race, God, and even George Bush. Forgetting the religious zealots and Bush bashers, race is the first thing many people go to after something like this—but this isn’t about race. Two more people in California were shot and killed at a Toy’s ‘R’ Us. Initial reports were that they were Hispanic. The crowd in a video clip from another Walmart in that image above? Seems pretty white to me. Looks like more than one race to me.

This problem is first and foremost caused by the make a break for it, free-for-all environment created by Black Friday and the desire by people to save money. In fairness to Walmart, (and that’s the last time I use that phrase), this is definitely something happening across the entire retail sector. The industry counts on it because it’s the one weekend for everyone to make their sales numbers for the year.

Another factor is the ‘planned’ shortage of available product which chums the waters. Remember the run on Dell laptops? (One year looking for Xbox accessories at a Walmart near me, the clerk told me they only got 11 Xbox units for their store. Say it with me: 11?)

Couple this with a mob mentality and you start to wonder why this hasn’t happened more. It’s just human nature to try and get something for free or to try and get a bargain. I’ve watched otherwise intelligent adults jump over kids at baseball games to get a free t-shirt.

So is it then any surprise when others dive for a floor display trying to get one of the last remaining Xbox units?

I don’t have all the answers either. On one hand, it’s easy to blame the stores for not doing more. Certainly Walmart needs to address this beyond the brief statement they put out Friday as well. (No spin either please on things like why a temporary worker was assigned to work the front door where he previously claimed he shouldn’t have been.)

On the other hand though, people still have a responsibility to act civilized as well, no? I want to believe they didn’t go there with the intent of hurting anyone. (I have to believe this or otherwise we’re dead as a society.) Looking back at The Who concert nearly 30 years ago where eleven kids were trampled to death in a general admission free-for-all, and you’re reminded once again what’s at work here: The race to get mine.

Having said that, anyone in this particular case identified on camera around the injured people should be arrested and charged. Currently, police are attempting to do just that. I don’t EVEN want to hear that one person in the crowd is suing Walmart for not protecting them. The crowd did this, they should own up to it. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems that the crowd ignored the safety of well, the crowd. (There must be some degree of depraved indifference at work here to charge someone with.)

From a morality POV, continuing to walk past a guy as he fell and subsequently received first aid is beyond words. This disgusts me the most. Just like the people in the image above. Were they raised by wolves? To have their kids dive for stuff like animals? Is this the end of the world and there’s no more food? Please, tell me that’s the case and I might have a little pity. Otherwise...

To the people responsible: You know who you are. You knocked a pregnant woman down and trampled another guy to death to get a deal on a plasma. Enjoy your TV. I’d say turn yourself in, but you won’t because you blame ‘the crowd’—not you. No, not you.

(If you’re wondering why the rant, my daughter works in retail and had to go in at 3:00 in the morning Friday, and to think that this could even happen to her has me insane right now. That someone has to get a phone call later that night from the police is unimaginable.)

But, since I’m not just all about the rant, let’s instead try to stop the madness:

1) Next year, do away with Black Friday. Make it a one-month period if you want where the same discounts are given but spread out over a four week period. (Or shorter or longer, whatever works.) Bottom line is you need to take away the incentive for people to want to stampede through a store and destroy things and each other.

2) Barring that, you need riot control levels of security. If large masses of people at stadiums can be managed safely, (and are likely crowds where alcohol is also present), certainly the major chains can bring in crowd control measures for the day that shift the balance of power from customer to store employees.

3) Extremely limited access to stores. Based on what someone in security told me, Walmart was limiting access near me to x-amount of people in the store at one time. Don’t know if that’s what was planned at the LI store but from the footage, it sure looks like there were no limits in place. Why not have a lottery system. You get one hour in the store. Everyone else, go buy a pretzel and come back later.

See, we have this thing called the internet. So why not just raffle stuff off online if you know you will have a shortage of these items. People weren’t rushing in to buy shower curtains. These were high-price items. You win the Xbox—you go in and claim it during normal hours. As for letting a mass of people in? Why not have extra staff escort people in as they walk through to prevent mayhem. You run like an animal through the aisles? See ya. Gone.

If some of this sounds harsh, well, it is. But, so what. A guy died who shouldn’t have. How would you feel if the victims were someone you knew? Family members even. When’s the industry going to wake up and do something about it. After a larger body count?



Anonymous said...

I like your idea of a lottery system. Nothing America likes more than a lottery. "Everyone" could win. 11 people get the right to buy the XBox, and the "losers" can get a big jug of soda or a tee shirt, or whatever.

Michelle Mackintosh said...

This whole situation makes me feel ill. I'm saddened by the state of humanity in the "developed" world. It's pure greed. Plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

Let me get stereotype-y for a minute here.

This was a Wal-Mart on Long Island, just outside NYC. Not exactly what you think of when you think of Wally World. I mean, thousands of other Wal-Marts had the same products, prices, and opening time.

What kind of crowd did that place attract? Did that have anything to do with it? I mean, yeah, something like this happens every year, but why this one? Because it makes the red-state redneck Wal-Marts down here look good in comparison.

Dan Goldgeier said...

And I'm talking about New Yawkers, of which I used to be one. Not any ethnic group.

shaun. said...

the people who live in long island are not New Yorkers.

HighJive said...

Walmart customers qualify as their own ethnic group.

Anonymous said...

@Matt - Yep. Free gifts for the losers makes everyone a winner.

@Danny G - Yeah, at first, I went there with asssuming it was one location, but then the video clip from another store shows it’s not just one store.

@hj - Well, I didn’t wanna profile a certain economic demo, but, hard to imagine the Nordstrom’s crowd fighting over the Brie.

darryl ohrt said...

Excellent post.

You're right on in your reference to:
The race to get mine.

And your solution of riot level security is the answer. The concert industry is a completely appropriate comparison.

That's what retail has created, and that's what retail needs to handle, if they're going to continue to create such events. Anything short of that is irresponsible.

Jam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jam said...

It's tragic. The madness of crowds is something few people can seem to shake when they're in the moment, which is why a lot of the responsibility rests on the institution to monitor and prevent these situations.

This made me think of a very similar disaster, the Victoria Hall Stampede ( It's sickening to think that people today can act in the same way as children fighting for sweets - and with the same consequences.

M.M. McDermott said...

I think what's saddest about the whole event isn't the blind idiocy of mob mentality. when the pushing happens, people in the front can't control what's coming from the back. But the decision to step over a trampled body en route to 50% off savings is a testament to moral fiber.

It's deliberate and disgusting in both its selfishness and ubiquity. It could've happened anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for mentioning personal responsibility. We're always too quick to wash our hands of everything. Many factors set this event rolling, but stepping all over a downed man can't be excused away by bad management, big business or a failing economy.

Anonymous said...

It's funny that you should mention lawsuits. Some people are going to make big $$ on something like this..but that may be the only thing that gets a Wal-Mart type company to think twice about the type of situation that they have been creating for several black fridays.

This has happened before, I can recall the clip of the large lady with the wig falling off when she fell over while running into the wal mart last year or the year before. The thing is, this is expected by the company and precautions should be taken. The public shouldn't behave like animals, but you have to prepare for that...especially because there's a history to base it on.

Anybody remember the Great White concert from a few years ago. People should have a reasonable expectation to safety when they go to a concert or when they go to the store. It may be a mad rush, (and surely some things can be changed to better control these friday openings) but organizations cannot wash their hands of situations that they control from start to finish, the only variable is the crowd. When the Great White concert happened somebody made a dumb mistake with the fireworks, but the club should have been prepared for a mad rush to leave the concert hall.

If you're going to continue to plan hysteria, the least you can do is take precautions, know what to do when the unexpected happens and face consequences/make change when something bad does occur.

BTW my local wal mart was not too packed, although I waited until 9:30 and I didn't see saw-my-leg-off deals. Until reading about the death, I was thinking the economy had dampened the hysteria of BF.