Few American spectacles are as grotesque as the one we witness every year on what’s known as “Black Friday.” Before dawn on the morning after Thanksgiving, throngs of shoppers stampede the nation’s retail stores, trying to grab up bargains before somebody else does. Last year, one such feeding frenzy took the life of Jdimytai Damour, the 34-year-old son of Haitian immigrants, who was working as a temporary employee at a Wal-Mart on Long Island. Witnesses said that many members of the crowd kept on shopping after they forced their way through the store’s doors and trampled Damour to death.
Marlene Lang, writing in Chicago’s Southtown Star, sums up the fallout from this gruesome tragedy:
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted an inspection and found that the New York store “fail(ed) to implement reasonable and effective crowd management principles,” including training that was “inadequate” to accommodate the advertised “Blitz Friday” that offered cheap-o electronics for all. OSHA slapped Wal-Mart with a “serious citation” and the maximum fine of $7,000. Uh, no, I’m not missing any zeros. That’s seven thousand dollars. Wal-Mart Stores promised to implement a crowd management plan for its New York stores and went to work consulting with big-event security firms.
Meanwhile, the deceased employee’s family sued for wrongful death, and Wal-Mart put out statements saying Damour had been part of the Wal-Mart family. Touching. The retail supergiant then cut a no-prosecution deal with the district attorney, promising beefed-up Black Friday crowd control along with generous contributions to the community–$1.5 million worth of local generosity and $400,000 in compensation to the victims of the incident.
Wal-Mart never admitted any guilt in Damour’s death. But the chain did cite its devotion to “customer and associate safety” this year in announcing its novel approach to Black Friday overcrowding: To prevent the dangers posed by throngs of bargain hunters waiting for their stores to open, Wal-Mart would simply never close at all.
So on Thanksgiving 2009, nearly all Wal-Mart stores remained open all day, and all through the night into Black Friday. Recession-strapped Americans desperate for bargains could leave their dinner tables to spend Thanksgiving Day at Wal-Mart. And if they liked, they could stay there all night, wandering bleary-eyed through the aisles as they waited for special blow-out sales to surface at 5 a.m. on Friday. Wal-Mart workers, of course, had no choice but to join in the fun. Not that working on holidays is anything new for most employees of this notorious union-busting company, which has faced multiple class-action lawsuits for shorting its workers on wages and discriminating against women, minorities, and people with disabilities. (You can read about these, and much more, at Wal-Mart Watch.)
According to news reports, there’s another reason why Wal-Mart had to stay open during what’s supposed to be a heartwarming family holiday. As the story goes, the recession has driven Wal-Mart and other chains to desperation. ABC News depicted the extended hours as a last-ditch response to projected “anemic” holiday sales:
“They’re trying to eke every penny out of every day of the selling season,” says Wendy Liebmann, president of the consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. “The more days they’re open, the more chance they have of pulling money out of our pockets.”
They’ve got good reason. Holiday spending likely will fall 1% in 2009 to $437.6 billion, the National Retail Federation projects. “Retailers need to be competitive,” says NRF spokeswoman Ellen Davis. “There’s a lot riding on the success of November and December retail sales.”
There’s just one thing wrong with this picture. As NPR reported earlier this month, “Unlike other big retail chains, Walmart has continued to report hefty profits during the recession. If anything, it’s becoming more competitive by lowering prices and remodeling stores to entice shoppers to spend more time.” Wal-Mart has a long history of driving local businesses into the ground, and this latest round of price-cutting is hurting everything from grocery stores to bookstores, as well as challenging the chain’s longtime rival, Target. As a result, Wal-Mart is likely to end up with an even bigger piece of the retail pie after the recession is over. And it’s doing quite well in the meantime, too: In 2008, Wal-Mart’s profits were up 7.2 percent over the previous year, and in the most recently completed quarter of 2009 alone, the company made morethan $3 billion.
There’s something both pathetic and obscene about the idea of hard-working (or worse still, unemployed) Americans battling for the last discounted blender or plasma TV in the middle of the night, while Wal-Mart’s execs sit in their backwater enclave in Arkansas raking in billions in profits. This year, at least, there were no reported deaths on Black Friday, in Wal-Mart or any other store. But extended hours couldn’t do away with a number of shopper brawls. At 4:03 on Friday morning, for example, sheriff’s deputies were called to a Wal-Mart in Rancho Cucamonga, California, where unknown subjects were said to be engaged in a fistfight “near the electronics area.”