Daily Archives: December 1, 2008

Wal-mart should be held accountable for door-buster death

When a Wal-mart employee was trampled to death by a crowd of 2,000 eager shoppers at a “door-buster” sale the day after Thanksgiving, Wal-mart defended its security precautions.  Some people assigned responsibility for the death to the crowd that behaved like “savages”.  Neither of these assertions should be allowed to stand.  Crowd behavior has been studied extensively, risk factors are well documented and predictable, and crowd management imperatives have been known for decades.  Wal-mart, along with many other retailers nationwide, intentionally employ the very factors that create dangerous crowd risks to create a sense of “excitement” and to achieve sales.

Following a tragedy at a concert by The Who in Cincinnati in 1979 in which 11 people were trampled to death while a crowd rushed into a concert, a task force provided over 100 recommendations to prevent such problems from happening.

Among other things, the report identified that a “sense of urgency or anxiety… causing a rush toward an entry point… is the crucial factor which must be removed.”  This crucial factor is exactly what Wal-mart and other retailers have been striving to create for “door-buster” sales.  The term “door-buster” itself recognizes that the goal of these sales is to create a crush of customers entering a store so severe that it literally breaks down the doors.

The “urgency or anxiety” of these sales is created by heavily promoting deep discounts of extremely limited quantities or merchandise.  This creates the incentive for people not only to arrive early and to enter the store quickly, but to find a way past as many other people as possible.  It is a blatant recipe for disaster.

There are a number of ways retailers can prevent death, injury, and damage at these events, but all of them come with costs.  For one, retailers can provide (or be forced by law to provide) enough discounted inventory so that there is no “urgency or anxiety” about being able to get a deal.  For another, retailers can provide adequate crowd control measures (including enough people, enough planning, enough training, enough communications, etc.) to manage even a large and unruly crowd.  It is possible.  Some retailers have addressed the problem so simply by giving coupons to the first so many people in the line before the doors open.  This provides all of the incentive to arrive early while eliminating the incentive to rush.

Any means retailers employ to limit injury at these events will cost money and will, somewhat, reduce their profits but we, and they, have to remember that blood money is always blood money.  If retailers cannot profitably operate safely, then they should not be allowed to operate at all.

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