Death by Wide-Screen TV: How Big Retailers Attempt Safety on Black Friday

The former senior director of global security for Walmart explains the in's and out's of how retail security guards combat shoplifters and violent Black Friday crowds.

by Emalie Marthe
Nov 26 2016, 5:40pm

Photo by Idaho Statesman, courtesy of Getty Images

Once a time to spend time with family, the day after Thanksgiving has now rebranded as Black Friday, an unofficial holiday celebrating American consumerism. Hordes of shoppers descend on Walmart, Best Buy, and malls to get the best sales. Last year, consumers spent $10.4 billion in stores, with an estimated 102 million people coming out to shop. Every year, retailers deal with theft and shoppers who stampede through stores and get into brawls over electronics deals. A website, Black Friday Death Count, even chronicles the amount of people who die or get injured while shopping. The violence, coupled with an increase in shoppers, means that retailers must take extra security precautions for the holiday sales season.

Nobody knows this better than security expert Steve Lindsey, who previously worked as the Senior Director of Global Security for Walmart. "Certainly there is a risk of theft to the retailer [on Black Friday]," Lindsey tells Broadly. "That can come from shoplifting, merchandise that's either walked out the front door or concealed, and out the door it goes."

According to a survey of claim data by insurance company Travelers, Black Friday is the biggest day of the year for theft. The study found that video game and apparel theft are over 40 percent higher on Black Friday compared to any other Friday, while toys are three times more likely to be stolen.

Shoplifters are hardly the only thieves retailers worry about. "There's a growing trend with fraud, not necessarily committed by people in the store, but by online actors," Lindsey says. "As online purchases continue to increase, so does online fraud." The infamous Target data breach occurred around the time of Black Friday. It is believed that hackers compromised the personal information of more than 40 million customers either through malware installed on in-store credit card scanners or swiping the data when it was traveling between Target and its credit card processors.

Consumers also face digital theft. A Kaspersky Lab study found that during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, online consumers are at an increased risk of having financial data and credit card information stolen, shopping at fraudulent online stores, and/or having malware installed on their computers.

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But theft is hardly the only risk on Black Friday. "Obviously there is a safety risk," Lindsey says. "Large amounts of people in a confined area, desiring what might be a limited product for them to have: You potentially have a risk of someone being injured because of the nature of the sale or maybe injured by another customer. A fistfight could break out over the same item." In 2011, a woman turned herself into police arrested after she pepper-sprayed a crowd of Walmart shoppers in an effort to grab an Xbox. (Authorities let her go after she explained that the crowd had tried to shove her children who held the videogame system.) Even more tragic is the 2008 death of Walmart employee Jdimytai Damour, who was crushed to death by 2,000 eager shoppers trying to get into the store.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"The actions that retailers take from a security standpoint on Black Friday have a crowd control and personal safety response as well," Lindsey says. "Generally, it's all hands on deck. Virtually everyone that's employed at the store is going to be there. They might often hire a third party, uniformed guard service, or even hire off-duty police officers to work. That kind of additional staffing really has an application for both of those risks."

Walmart recently announcedthat they will be handing on wristbands on Black Friday to customers who wait in line for electronics to prevent a melee when they enter stores. Lindsey says that retailers also usually check and update their surveillance equipment in advance of the holiday: "If they're displaying something that might be a high theft target in an area where they don't normal have cameras, they might either add cameras or move cameras from one aisle to another to capture the view of this merchandise."

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But shoppers can't rely on retailers alone to protect their safety on Black Friday. "If you can, go with someone else, a friend or a relative. Just being by yourself can always put you at risk," Lindsey advises. "I would have a plan, understanding that 'Here's the store I want to go to first, here's the item I want to get.' If you go scope that out before Black Friday, that will help you with a plan. When you get there, you look confident, you look like you know what you're there for, and that generally helps you not become a target of someone trying to take advantage of you."

Lindsey warns people's reliance on smartphones also makes them more vulnerable during the holiday shopping season. "People should be concerned for their safety more than sometimes they are," he says. "While you're in line or in this motion, maybe stay off your phone as much as you can. If your head is down, you're not visualizing things around you. You've also essentially disabled one of your hands by having your phone in it. There will be plenty of time to look at your phone later, but when you're in the store shopping, have a purpose. Be in line, get your stuff, and be alert to the crowd around you and what they're doing."