Having a crowd anxious to get into your store sounds like an ideal situation for a retailer. However, it’s also a source of worry if the crowd turns into a mob and gets out of hand. That is the challenge facing retailers on Black Friday, the Friday after Thanksgiving that is typically the biggest shopping day of the year. Recent years having seen some ugly incidents in which customers or employees have been hurt in the rush of customers trying to get into stores. (Indeed, one Wal-Mart employee was even killed last year.)
There were two articles this week that discussed steps firms were taking to assure a safe start to the holiday shopping season (Black Friday doorbuster sales: Retailers hope to bring order before chaos, Chicago Tribune, Nov 10 & Calming the Black Friday Crowds, New York Times, Nov 11). Some steps seem fairly mundane. Part of the problem is that the typical big box store is set up with a limited number of entrances (particularly in contrast with, say, a department store at a mall). So some efforts focus on just having a more orderly flow threw store doors.
Wal-Mart is going a step further by opening the doors early:
The most significant change at Wal-Mart is that the majority of its discount stores (as opposed to its Supercenters) will open Thanksgiving morning at 6 a.m. and stay open through Friday evening. Last year, those stores closed Thanksgiving evening and reopened early Friday morning. By keeping the stores open for 24 hours, Wal-Mart is hoping for a steady flow of shoppers instead of mammoth crowds swelling outside its stores in the wee hours of Friday.
In another new twist this year, shoppers at Wal-Mart will not have to sprint toward a pile of flat-screen televisions and scuffle with one another to get one. Rather, customers will be able to enter the store at any time and line up at merchandise displays for the must-have items on their lists. When the products go on sale Friday at 5 a.m., workers will supervise the lines, giving shoppers the merchandise in the order in which they joined the line — until the goods are out of stock. [NYT]
The possibility of getting customers to line up in an orderly fashion for goods is an interesting twist. Best Buy takes a different route:
For years, Best Buy has controlled crowds by sending teams of workers into the parking lots to dole out tickets for its so-called door-busters — hot items like digital cameras and laptops at exceedingly low prices. Tickets are given out about 3 a.m. and each customer is allowed one ticket for each door-buster item they intend to buy. “They know if they have a ticket, they’re guaranteed they have that product,” [Peter]. Conway [general manager of a Best Buy in Westbury, N.Y ] said. “It creates ease of mind.” [NYT]
I wonder how well this ticket scheme would work. At Wal-Mart you have to pick your shots; you can only be in line for the discounted laptop or the cheap TV. At Best Buy the tickets allow you to be in both lines at once. Since you don’t have to pay for the TV if you don’t want it, why you shouldn’t claim every ticket Best Buy offers? If you get lucky a score a fistful of tickets, why not just sell it to someone later in line. That is, as soon as all the tickets are gone, why aren’t people scalping the claims they don’t need? It’s akin to flipping the cheap goods on EBay without having pay for shipping.