November 26, 2009 in Business

Let bargain buyers beware

Expected throngs prompt stores to beef up safety
Frank Eltman Associated Press
File Associated Press photo

In this Nov. 28, 2008, file photo, Nassau County Police examine the front of the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., where a temporary Wal-Mart worker died after shoppers broke down the doors and trampled him.
(Full-size photo)

VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. – Victoria Rogers had originally planned to make an early stop the day after Thanksgiving last year at the Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream on Long Island. Her last-minute decision against it might have saved her life.

“We saw the mob, and we said no,” she said. “Wal-Mart’s not the store.”

What she saw that day was no ordinary crowd of shoppers, but a throng police say jammed through the doors upon the store’s opening in a mad dash for holiday savings, trampling a guard to death.

“No price can be worth someone’s life,” said Rogers, of the New York City borough of Queens, on a recent visit to the same store.

One year later, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is embroiled in lawsuits, appealing citations and instituting companywide changes, including staying open 24 hours on Thanksgiving, and has inspired voluntary federal guidelines outlining what other retailers should do to avoid the same result.

“What happened is tragic, and we’re still saddened by it,” said Daphne Moore, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores, based in Bentonville, Ark. “We are committed to looking for ways to make stores even safer for our customers and associates.”

Joe LaRocca, senior asset protection adviser for the National Retail Federation, said the trade group worked with retailers to come up with its own guidelines for managing crowds during special events, including the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday because it is traditionally considered the day stores break into profitability for the full year.

“Following the incident last year, retailers took another look at their crowd control and major event guidelines,” he said. “Many retailers already had these guidelines; some enhanced what they had.”

Best Buy ran rehearsals for Black Friday weekend, practicing lining customers up, placing products in the store, checking out overall flow and how the event may flow within the store.

Other companies have worked closely with mall operators on where to form lines and how they might better communicate with customers. They have been examining staffing plans and hiring extra security.

Wal-Mart signed off in May on an agreement with local prosecutors that required it to overhaul security for Black Friday sales in its 92 New York locations, but it recently said it is employing its new strategy nationwide.

The settlement also required Wal-Mart to consult with experts to develop safety plans for each store. Crowd-management staff will be deployed, and maps will show customers where the hot sale items are.

Stores will also place the hottest items – marked-down TVs, toys and laptop computers, for example – far apart to prevent big crowds from gathering.

Wal-Mart will also erect barriers to manage traffic flow and distribute wristbands to customers on items with limited inventory. Security monitors will help ensure procedures are being followed, officials said – not just guards, like Jdimytai Damour.

At 6-5, 270 pounds, Damour was built like NFL linebacker, but he was no match for an estimated 2,000 people who broke down the doors when the Valley Stream Wal-Mart opened at 5 a.m. on Black Friday last year.

Damour, who was 34 and described by friends as a “gentle giant,” had been hired only days before. He was trapped inside the vestibule and died of asphyxiation. Several other people, including a pregnant woman, were injured.

A criminal investigation forced Wal-Mart Stores to revamp security planning for the holiday season and led federal regulators to issue safety recommendations for all merchants conducting special events like Black Friday sales.

Damour’s family is suing the retailer and Nassau County officials, claiming police could have controlled the crowd better, although police contend that was Wal-Mart’s responsibility.

Edward H. Gersowitz, a lawyer for the Damour family, says “positive discussions” continue with Wal-Mart about a possible settlement.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Wal-Mart for inadequate crowd management, but the retailer is appealing.

Police said customers stepped over or on Damour’s body as they forced their way through sliding glass doors.

“I think the people themselves were at fault because they were like animals, wild people,” Joe Staskowski, of Valley Stream, said on a recent trip to the store. “And for a couple of dollars for people to get hurt or killed? It’s a tragedy.”

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