Screengrab from dchadd427’s video on YouTube.
Incident showing a man being taken down by police in a Buckeye, Arizona Wal-Mart.

Another year, another Black Friday marred with violence. The shopping stories that surfaced these past few days sounded like they were written for a bad horror movie.  A grandfather bloodied by an off-duty police officer, a woman using pepper-spray to beat back fellow shoppers competing for the same item, and most horrifically, a man shot and critically injured in a parking lot robbery as he was returning to his car.

Many of these major Black Friday incidents took place at Wal-Mart stores across the country, a retailer that’s no stranger to shopper violence. Who could forget the 2008 incident at a Long Island Wal-Mart where a temporary worker was trampled to death as bargain shopper stampeded over his lifeless body?

Frankly, it’s easy to blame Wal-Mart for many of this year’s incidents. After all, the company is the most influential retailer in the United States and promised to improve its management of Black Friday crowds after the 2008 stampede. But the National Retail Federation (NRF) should also share the blame for standing idly by while this wave of violence continues to spread from year to year.

More: See a map of major Black Friday violence from 2006-2011

The NRF’s stated goal is to be the “voice of retail worldwide,” advocating for the interests of retailers. But under the surface, the NRF has turned has turned the entire holiday shopping season into the cornerstone of its annual campaign to help line its own pockets (and those of its member retailers). Using public relations experts and influential messaging, they cajole shoppers into opening up their wallets during the holidays and, in turn, rake in higher annual membership fees from their members.

Right around this time of the year, most of us see this publicity campaign in full-swing, with NRF experts on air proclaiming how this year’s holiday discounts are better than last year’s, how shoppers could miss out on great Black Friday discounts, and rattling off shopping statistics on your local television newscast.

All of this messaging drives shoppers into a frenzy about holiday shopping, thinking about the scarcity of deeply-discounted products. More importantly, it gets Americans to feel good about shopping.

The NRF’s leaders strive not only to help themselves, but also to set up the right conditions for a profitable shopping season. In fact, the NRF has taken this goal so far that it even created a self-proclaimed “Cyber Monday” shopping holiday in 2005 to help its online retail members increase their business during the holiday season. After all, if their members do well, the NRF does well too, right?

But there is a problem. As good as the NRF is at drumming up publicity and business for its members, it has an abysmal track record with crowd management and security planning around these violence-ridden Black Friday events. It simply provides its members with a short guide about crowd management that provides no substantive advice in planning sales events (as seen below or on the NRF’s Website).

NRF’s Crowd Management Guidelines 2011

If the NRF authentically  wishes to help its members stop the Black Friday violence and be the de facto leader of the retail industry, it needs to play a more proactive role in preventing the violence from occurring in the first place. The organization needs to use its power and influence as the mouthpiece for the retail industry to get its members to solve the problem instead of apologizing for it. Absent government regulation on this issue, NRF could and should evolve into a self-regulatory organization for the retail industry on the matter of shopper safety.

Under this new model, the NRF could take the lead by requiring members to abide by a set of Black Friday operating procedures. It could require retailers to create a comprehensive plan to address crowd and security risks at each individual store. Independent law enforcement, security and crowd management experts would approve or disapprove a “Black Friday-ready” certification for each store after reviewing the plans. In turn, forward-thinking municipalities and fire marshals could also require that stores obtain this certification before opening on Black Friday.

Furthermore, the NRF could also require these same members to develop a uniform Black Friday shopping experience for all shoppers, no matter which big-box retailer they visit. Ideas include handing out tickets before each event that entitle the shopper to one of the door buster items to be picked up at a later time, providing copies of in-store maps to shoppers before and during Black Friday so they can find their way to product displays, and most importantly, drastically limiting the number of people allowed in the store at a time.  Retailers should help shoppers know what to expect no matter where they shop that day.

Screengrab of Deciple87’s video on Youtube.
Video shows incident woman releasing pepper spray into a crowd at a Porter Ranch, California Wal-Mart.

Self-regulatory organizations (SRO) are not a new concept. The National Association of Securities Dealers, National Association of Realtors and the American Medical Association are all SRO’s. Though self-regulation, the NRF can take advantage of its status as the industry leader by requiring independent verification of the retailer’s readiness to accommodate Black Friday shoppers and provide customers a consistent shopping experience across all stores nationwide.

In truth, the feasibility of this idea is debatable and the probability of it being adopted is a next-to-nil. But the hope isn’t for the NRF to fully adopt this plan. . Instead, this one idea demonstrates that creative solutions to this problem are endless. Solutions are limited only by the willingness of the NRF and its member retailers to conceive of and implement them. And unless they step up to quickly to end this persistent violence, policy makers and regulators will step in.

The NRF and its members may not have a legal requirement to practice such crowd management and shopper safety procedures, but they have an ethical obligation to protect the lives of their own customers attending Black Friday events. Let’s hope they wake up to this fact before Black Friday goes by again with yet another shopper injury or fatality.

Map of Major Black Friday Violence (2006-2011)


View Major Black Friday Violence (2006-2011) in a larger map
Red Flag = Deaths Occurred
Yellow Flag = Injuries Occurred
Green Flag = No / Unknown Injuries Occurred

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