Monday, November 28, 2011

The road to frenzied Black Friday

Pepper-sprayed customers, smash-and-grab looters, beatings and bloody scenes in the shopping aisles.
How did Black Friday devolve into this?
Experts say a volatile mix of desperate retailers and cutthroat marketing has hyped the traditional post-Thanksgiving sales to increasingly frenzied levels that resulted in shopping-related violence from Los Angeles to New York last weekend.
With stores opening earlier, bargain-obsessed shoppers often are sleep-deprived and short-tempered. Add in the online-coupon phenomenon, which feeds the psychological hunger for impossible bargains, and you've got a recipe for trouble, said Theresa Williams, a marketing professor at Indiana University.
"These are people who should know better and have enough stuff already," Williams said. "What's going to be next year, everybody getting Tasered?"
Across the country during the holiday weekend, there were signs that tensions had ratcheted up, with violence resulting in several instances.
A woman turned herself in to police Saturday after being accused of pepper-spraying 20 other customers at a Los Angeles-area Walmart on Thursday as they struggled to get to a crate of Xbox video game consoles.
In Kinston, N.C., a security guard pepper-sprayed unruly customers scrambling for electronics.
In New York, crowds looted a clothing store in Soho. A man was shot during an attempted robbery outside a store in San Leandro, Calif.; shots were fired at a mall in Fayetteville, N.C.; there was a stabbing outside a store in Sacramento, Calif., and a near riot broke out over $2 waffle irons in Little Rock, Ark.
"Instead of a nice sweater, you need a bulletproof vest and goggles," said Betty Thomas, 52, shopping Saturday with her family at a mall in Raleigh, N.C.
The wave of violence revived memories of the 2008 Black Friday stampede that killed a Walmart employee and put a pregnant woman in the hospital on New York's Long Island. Walmart spokesman Greg Rossiter said Saturday that Black Friday 2011 was safe at most of its nearly 4,000 U.S. stores despite "a few unfortunate incidents."
Black Friday -- named that because it puts retailers in the black -- has become more intense as companies compete for customers, said Jacob Jacoby, a consumer behavior expert at New York University.
The idea of luring in customers with a few doorbuster deals has long been a staple of the post-Thanksgiving sales. But now stores are opening earlier, and those deals are getting more extreme, he said.
There's also a new factor, Williams said: the rise of coupon websites like Groupon and LivingSocial, the online equivalents of doorbusters that usually deliver a single, one-day offer with savings of up to 80% on museum tickets, photo portraits, yoga classes and the like.
The services encourage impulse buying and an obsession with bargains, Williams said, and get businesses hooked on quick infusions of customers.
"The whole notion of getting a deal, that's all we've seen for the last two years," Williams said.
The violence has prompted some analysts to wonder whether the sales are worth it, and what solutions might work.
In a New York Times column last week, economist Robert Frank proposed slapping a 6% sales tax on purchases between 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving and 6 a.m. Friday in an attempt to stop the "arms race."
Small retailers, meanwhile, are pushing Small Business Saturday to woo customers turned off by the Black Friday crush.
Next up, today, is Cyber Monday, when online retailers put their wares on sale. But on Saturday, many shoppers said they still prefer buying at stores.
Thomas said she likes the time at the mall with her family too much to shop online.
To her, the more pressing problem was that the Thanksgiving weekend sales didn't seem very good.
"If I'm going to get shot, at least let me get a good deal," Thomas said.

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