A smallish, low-end plasma TV. Wrangler jeans. A Bissell compact upright vacuum cleaner. Last Friday, this was the gotta-have-it merchandise that galvanized more than 2,000 people on Long Island, N.Y., to get out of bed before dawn, wait in the cold in front of a Wal-Mart and then stampede through the store at 5 a.m. running over anything -- and anyone -- in their way. Within minutes, the crowd had trampled to death a 34-year-old temporary employee named Jdimytai Damour. Crazed shoppers didn't even steer clear of rescuers who were treating Damour, stepping on paramedics as they performed CPR.
It was a gruesome start to one of the year's biggest shopping days -- so-called "Black Friday,'' named for the post-Thanksgiving date when retailers traditionally became profitable. Video posted on YouTube by shoppers with cell phone cameras show crazed crowds and fights over merchandise across the nation. Forget the tired jokes and cliched media coverage depicting shopping as a competition. This year, it became a blood sport -- a shameful, sickening milestone for American culture that must not happen again.
Damour's death prompted a number of calls in recent days to reject materialism and embrace the true spirit of the holidays. Although welcome, that's not a new message. Will it happen? Hopefully. But traditions, even ones that have morphed into excess, take time to change. In the meantime, Americans are still going to shop and hunt for bargains. While some have called for new laws to protect Black Friday consumers, the responsibility belongs to retailers. They must provide better crowd control, and they'd do well to follow the example of two Minnesota-based retailing giants: Best Buy and Target.
Both spend months planning for the holiday crush, applying Midwestern practicality to ensure order and fairness. In particular, Best Buy and Target have an easy-to-emulate solution to avoid dangerous Black Friday stampedes. The electronics retailer and some locations of the bulls-eye discount store give out claim tickets for doorbuster items -- the highly discounted, highly desired items that are sold in limited quantities. An employee works the line before the store's opening, handing out the prized tickets to customers who have waited the longest. When the doors open, there's no mad scramble to claim a doorbuster. Nor are there fights over whose it is -- one common cause of Black Friday altercations.
Julie Dalton, a product process manager at the Best Buy in Richfield, said other strategies used by the retailer also enhance safety. Employees working the line hand out store maps so that customers know where to go and don't need to rush. Inside, balloons mark the location of popular merchandise. Doorbusters are often kept behind the counter or under watch by a sales associate, which helps prevent disputes or someone trying to grab the merchandise without a ticket. Additional security -- a step Target also takes very seriously at its stores -- monitors it all. "The whole day we focus on making sure the customer is taken care of,'' Dalton said.
Damour's death is a sad reminder that employees' safety is also at stake. In Long Island, police are sorting out what happened. Wal-Mart apparently had extra security at the store, although officials did not respond to this newspaper's request for information about other crowd-control measures. Even with the necessary precautions, the Long Island tragedy could have happened anywhere. But by following the lead of two of Minnesota's most respected retailers, stores across the country can improve their odds.