Black Friday will be very different from years past, as we sit in the comfort of our homes, sifting through mobile apps and retailer websites to grab discounted goods, cozy in our fat pants while we swallow another forkful of leftover Thanksgiving pecan pie.
It will be a kinder, gentler Black Friday sale this year, rather than a mad dash to holiday shopping list must-haves in-store. With local mandates and retailer requirements for social distancing, you’re more likely to see a confrontation over a customer not wearing a mask than people duking it out over the Xbox Series X this week. But not too long ago, the Black Friday weekend has played host to insanity resulting in deals, steals, violence, and even death.
Retailers offered insane discounts on selected merchandise each Black Friday — like $200 for a television typically selling for three times the price. The catch? Stores typically only had a handful of units in stock. To score the deal, you had to be one of the first few people in the door when the store opened in the early morning. There was no organization in the early days — so mobs assembled at the store while it was still dark outside.
In later years, shoppers queued up overnight just to be the first inside to snag a hot holiday toy, an HDTV, PlayStation, or a Cuisinart. Customers soon began camping out in tents overnight to earn an early coveted shopping spot, harkening back to days waiting in line for U2 concert tickets.
The chaos spurred the use of crowd control measures, protective barriers, wristband ticketing pre-queue systems, and local authorities to maintain order. But that wasn’t enough; in some cases, the shopping frenzy manufactured by retailers ended in tragedy.
A doorbuster becomes real, and deadly
Retailers still use the term “doorbuster” to describe deals so massive that shoppers are willing to bust the hinges from the doors to grab them. It’s a play on words, but a dark history reveals that this is literally what happened in some cases.
In 2008, Idimytal Damour, a temporary stocking clerk, was trampled to death by shoppers gone wild at the Green Acres Mall Walmart in New York. Hours before the incident, police were called when a crowd stampeded through interlocking plastic barriers — eight of them — meant to manage crowd control. But three hours later, the zombie horde of 2,000 rammed up against the sliding glass doors before ultimately smashing through them.
Store management had instructed the larger employees like Damour (who stood tall at 6 foot 5 inches) to serve as ad-hoc security guards at the front door. But at 5 am, the doors collapsed under the weight of the mob and directly on top of the worker.
Months later, Walmart agreed to settle a case brought by the Nassau County District Attorney for felony reckless endangerment. The $2 million to the county included $400,000 to the Damour family and helped the company avoid criminal prosecution.
Walmart was also embroiled in a legal battle with OSHA who charged them with a $7,000 fine and federal citation. In their appeal, Walmart argued that safeguarding their associates wasn’t a federal standard at the time. In 2015, Walmart finally paid the fine and accepted the citation after spending over $1 million fighting against it.
Black Friday was an appropriated term — first used in reference to the U.S. gold market crash in 1869, which was in September, not November. Much later, in the 1950’s it was coined by retailers, according to History Channel. Back then, suburban shoppers would descend into Philadelphia in advance of the annual Army-Navy football game, causing large crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would take advantage of the large crowds and chaos to hide their five-finger discount attempts. And the police, unable to take the day off, called it “Black Friday.”
The term became so widely used that local city retailers cashed in on the name and marketed their sales using the phrase. By the 1980s, national retailers were capitalizing on the term to socialize and hawk their deals too. The marketing genius manufactured hysteria to create a new surge of holiday shopping before December 1st.
Black Friday soon became a weekend-long event with retailers big and small stretching deals to the weekend or starting early. There was even a bit of backlash when national retailers telegraphed plans to open on Thanksgiving Day, which was typically closed as a paid holiday for workers.
Opponents argued that employees wouldn’t be able to celebrate the time off with their families, but consumers secretly voted with their wallets. Fiserv, a First Data company, said that Thanksgiving Day sales surged starting at 4 pm. That’s right, as families were polishing off that pumpkin pie, some were sneaking off to the store or their smartphone to nab a deal.
Overall, 165 million people shopped over the four-day weekend in 2019, according to the National Retail Federation.
Don’t forget your coupons and pepper spray
A shooting at Toys R Us in California left two people dead on Black Friday in 2008. Witnesses said that a fight erupted between two women, possibly over a toy. What followed was an escalation of voices, fists flying, and then as many as four gunshots by the men who accompanied them.
In 2010, a shopper in the Augusta, Georgia Best Buy didn’t think that the deals on laptops were good enough — so he tried to shoplift one instead. Security camera footage showed the attempted theft and store managements’ attempts to reclaim the goods. In the ensuing mayhem, the shopper ran into four Marines who were collecting gifts for Toys for Tots charity — and they summarily dropped him to the ground. Undeterred, he pulled out a knife, stabbed one of the men in the back, and bolted for the exit.
In 2011, things got out of hand as bargain hunters fought over deals in the video game department at the Palm Desert, California Walmart. In a frenzy for discounted Xbox consoles, one woman doused at least ten shoppers with pepper spray. The woman paid for her merchandise and casually left the store before police arrived, surrendering to authorities the next day.
Think that violence doesn’t happen during Black Friday anymore? Think again. Just last year, the Destiny USA shopping mall in Syracuse, New York, was host to two violent incidents: a shooting on Black Friday, followed by a stabbing the next day.
Despite this, some shoppers remain unfazed. In some ways, they have become desensitized to the violence surrounding the frenzied holiday sales. Of the latest incident, a shopper at the mall commented, “it can happen anywhere, I guess,” and recollected that there was “actually a stabbing on Black Friday at Macy’s” a year ago.
This is true. Just one year prior, in 2018, two men were involved in a stabbing incident on the second floor of the Macy’s — also at Destiny USA.
A kinder, gentler Black Friday?
Customer behavior has already been shifting. Last year, Black Friday shoppers spent $7.4 billion online, second only to Cyber Monday of 2018, at $7.9 billion. Look for a reimagined sale period to last the full month of November going forward. Walmart announced that their Black Friday event this year would be span from November 4th through the 27th. Other retailers, like Kohl’s, have followed suit.
The reason isn’t just for customer safety. Retailers are trying to salvage the year after months of lost revenue from economic slowdowns or temporary closures earlier in the year. It’s also recognizing that shoppers are still wary of returning to brick and mortar stores — even if they were allowed.
This year, we aren’t going to see many injuries at all, aside from rage clicking for sold-out deals. The long lines extending into parking lots will not be experienced due to increased online, at-home, or curbside-pickup sales, restrictions on in-store capacity mandated by municipalities or retailers. It’s no longer necessary, nor permitted by health officials, or in a retailers’ interests to hedge their entire holiday sales period over a single weekend.
Still, it’s important to remember the part that retailers played in tossing cheap limited deals on the salesfloor, like chum to frenzied bargain hunting sharks. It was only a matter of time before there was blood.