A Plea To Protect Shoppers On Black Friday

With markdowns and midnight sales every Black Friday come reports of shopping-related violence. One woman allegedly pepper-sprayed other customers over an Xbox. In years past, people have been trampled to death. Adam Cohen says it's time for stores and the government to do more to protect people.

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As bargain hunters anticipate the markdowns and midnight sales, Black Friday becomes increasingly violent. In a column in time - on time.com, Adam Cohen describes it as a spectator sport. Viewers watching at home see how - just how crazy and violent the day turns out to be. He points to outrage after a woman at a Wal-Mart in Los Angeles pepper-sprayed some fellow shoppers in a tussle over marked-down videogame consoles. In West Virginia, a man collapsed and died of natural causes at a Target while others stepped around him. Cohen argues it's time for stores and the government to do more to protect people.

What was your experience this past Black Friday? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Adam Cohen teaches at Yale Law School and joins us, now, from a studio on campus. He writes a regular column for time.com, where his latest "How to Stop Black Friday Mayhem" ran today. And it's good to have you with us today.

ADAM COHEN: Good to be here.

CONAN: And is there - these are anecdotal, obviously. Is there any real indication that mayhem is increasing?

COHEN: Well, you know, Black Friday is increasing, right? Some years ago, it wasn't such a big day. Now it's become a real part of the holiday. It's almost like, you know, like a football game that we schedule every year. Let's sit back, watch our TV and see what happens on Black Friday.

CONAN: And, sadly, there's plenty to watch.

COHEN: Yeah. The pepper spray woman was kind of the star this year - shopping rage, they call it. But, yeah. I mean, you know, when you talk to people, a lot of them can just, you know, just rattle off some of the incidents you mentioned. People know about the old guy in West Virginia who collapsed and people walked over him or around him without doing anything. People sort of know the worst stories of every Black Friday, which is indication that it's getting a little bit out of control.

CONAN: It's interesting. We have this email from Kenyon(ph): I went to Black Friday - midnight Black Friday at Wal-Mart just to see the craze. I heard people talk about how they took items out of other people's shopping carts when they weren't paying attention. I saw and heard people buy several of the same sought-after item most likely so that they could sell them on eBay. So exactly: This is spectator sport now.

COHEN: Absolutely. And there are videos that have gotten viral. There's the famous $2 waffle iron riot, where people were all trying to grab as many of these $2 waffle irons as they can. And people are putting them up in blogs and commenting on them. It's really become, as I say, part of the holiday season.

CONAN: This goes back, I guess, to a case on Long Island a few years ago where a security guard - or at least an employee working as a security guard - ended up being killed.

COHEN: That's right. That's sort of, you know, the worst incident in recent memory. He was a temporary worker, and he was there doing his job, 5:00 in the morning. The crowds had massed outside of this Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island. And when they pushed up against the glass, they actually broke it, and he was trampled and asphyxiated. And that really did - that was the incident that really got people thinking about maybe we need to take a step back, take a deep breath and do things a little differently.

CONAN: One of the changes that some places instituted was, in fact, the midnight opening, hoping that would, well, ease the crush.

COHEN: Right, midnight opening, or, you know, no hard openings at all. You could just be open all day and all night, and that way there's not that 5 a.m., thousands of people waiting outside, trying to get in, because it's that anticipation and that sort of running of the bulls quality that definitely contributes to some of the security concerns.

CONAN: And there are also things, you suggest, that both the stores and maybe the government, could do.

COHEN: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, to be fair, the stores are beginning to do some of these things already. After that incident on Long Island, Wal-Mart agreed to make some changes, and they made some very positive ones, including, as I say, moving away from the hard opening times, having, you know, better trained security officials on hand. The industry itself has come up with some proposed guidelines. But, yeah, it's things like training better. You know, a good idea is not to make, you know, to remove the competitive aspect because, you know, crowds in general are dangerous. We know about crowd psychology and, you know, crowd disasters which happen in all kinds of incidents. There are religious pilgrimages where people get trampled. So crowds are dangerous.

But when you put in that competitive element, that there's a limited number of bargains and it's whoever elbows their way to the front is going to get it, that's really dangerous. So things like letting people order online in advance so they know that that item is waiting for them, things like...

CONAN: Yeah. But not everybody has a computer.

COHEN: OK. Rain checks are always a good answer. Don't make people feel that unless they pepper spray the other customers, they're not going to get their Xbox.

CONAN: And you also suggest maybe giving out numbered tickets so people enter the store in order so that - not to stampede at the front.

COHEN: Yeah. Think about a well-regulated deli counter, right? People take a number and they wait their turn. They're not, you know, elbowing each other and tackling each other to try to get that pastrami sandwich.

CONAN: We're talking with Adam Cohen, a regular contributor to time.com. And this is about his piece that ran, "How to Stop the Black Friday Mayhem." It's on time.com. Today, we'd like to hear your story of your experience on Black Friday. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Jennifer. Jennifer calling us from Cincinnati.

JENNIFER: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JENNIFER: I was calling to say I did have an experience, but I do not do Black Fridays. But I have four children. They all wanted the same thing. My husband and I went to a store to pick up a game console. We had it. It was in our cart. A woman came by and snatched it, you know? And I stopped her and I said, hey, you know, that was in my cart. I'm touching my cart. It's mine. And she said, until you buy it, it's not yours, at which point my husband stepped in and grabbed the console from her.

But I think part of the problem is in the society where it's I want, I want, I want; I get it, I get it, I get it. People are forgetting simple things like manners. Manners have gone completely out the door.

CONAN: I think you're probably not alone in that assessment, Adam Cohen.

COHEN: I think that's right. And, you know, the stores need to think about what creative solutions they can come up with. Obviously, the best thing would be if everyone were polite and obeyed the rules, but we're not going to get that. So it might be things like rain checks, if the woman doesn't feel unless she grabs someone else's item she won't get one, or it might be having more and better security on hand.

CONAN: Jennifer, I wonder, I've lately seen a commercial on TV where this woman singing the jingle takes something out of another woman's cart.

JENNIFER: Right.

CONAN: And, you know, jolly, jolly, ha, ha, ha.

JENNIFER: Exactly. And I think the media does have a lot to do with it. You know, my kids, this year in particular, were like, what's Black Friday? Why are all these commercials? You know, what is the big deal? And you try to explain them why it's a bad thing. You know, Black Friday has become an event, and in all actuality, it's not a great thing, you know? It's become this morbid obsession list, I want what I want and I'm going to take it and I'm going to go get it. It's that competitive side that you guys were talking about.

CONAN: Jennifer, thank...

JENNIFER: But, you know, I like your idea about government interference. And my whole thing is if the government doesn't need to interfere, we just need to remember what we were brought up on, you know, the boundaries that are basically inherent in everything we do. And people just don't care when they go out to these stores.

CONAN: Jennifer, thanks very much for the call. Sorry you've had your experience.

JENNIFER: Thanks.

CONAN: Interesting. As you mentioned, Black Friday didn't use to be such a big deal. Called Black Friday because it was the day in the year when many businesses went into the black. They were profitable after almost 11 months and was the beginning of the run-up to the Christmas season. The big bargains were supposed to be the day after Christmas, not the day after Thanksgiving.

COHEN: That's exactly right. And I think a lot of your listeners will remember when people at Thanksgiving just sat around and look forward to Friday being a day to, sort of, eat leftovers and watch television. It's been a real concerted campaign to make people associate that day with the need to run out and begin buying lots of stuff.

CONAN: Let's go next to Scott. Scott, with us from Gulf Shores in Alabama.

SCOTT: Yeah. I found it absolutely egregious when I talked to some of the people in front of my local Target store. There are guys that were out there for a couple of days camping out that said, oh, yeah. I'm here to get a swing set for my kids for a couple of hundred dollars less. Yeah, I'll miss Thanksgiving with my family, but I'll get to buy them some happiness anyway. And it seems to me like it just becomes so commercialized that people are completely backwards on how the holidays, I mean, what they actually are, what they actually mean.

CONAN: It also, Scott - and I wonder, Thanksgiving was always the holiday that didn't have the commercial aspect to it. You weren't given, you know, Thanksgiving cards or Thanksgiving gifts. It seems to have edged in on that too.

SCOTT: It's absolutely insane that our values have turned into - instead of peace, love and prosperity, I'm going to save 20 bucks on a TV. Those are my new values. And that's what I'm kind of taking away from Black Friday these days.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Here's an email that we have. This is from Jean(ph): On Black Friday, we instead went to plaid Friday and bought books at our favorite independent bookstore, Antigone Books in Tucson, Arizona. She, I think, may work at Antigone Books, but I don't care. There are all kinds of variations. I heard a small business Saturday too.

JENNIFER: Absolutely. And then, of course, cyber Monday, as well. But you make a great point. I mean, the point of Thanksgiving used to be to be thankful for what you already had, and that's a very heavy concept, being grateful for what you have. But this is edged in and got you thinking already on that day that's supposed to be about gratitude, what do I need next?

CONAN: Here's an email from Aman(ph) in Sunnyvale: Really, how many Black Friday riots or violent incidents took place? A handful of anecdotes, however violent, does not make a trend. If this was happening in many stores in every single city across the country, then I'd see the point. Millions of people go about their business in these sales every year. Manners seem to prevail. I think we're a long way off the "Mad Max" scenario.

COHEN: Yeah. That could be. But if you actually just go on YouTube, there are many videos of, you know, just scenes from around America about what was happening on Black Friday. There's one that has gotten a lot of hits of just a mob of people in Oakland, fighting over four-gigabit memory cards. And I can tell you, you would not want to be in that mob. So even the mobs that turned out OK, it's not a safe situation, and you don't know when it's going to go wrong, and maybe a lot of them didn't go wrong this year, but one did in 2008. And, you know, do we want them to go wrong next year?

CONAN: We're talking with Adam Cohen about Black Friday mayhem. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we go next to April, April with us from Burlingame in California.

APRIL: Hi. My take on this with having the stores open at midnight creates a - an environment for people who can rob people in the parking lot because that's what happened over on the East Bay where, you know, a family had just come out of the store with a load of their merchandise and these guys came up to them and tried to rob them, and actually one of them got - one of the family members got shot.

CONAN: Wow. Are they all right, do you know?

APRIL: I - that I don't know. But the thing is, is that I think the, you know, having the stores open in an environment where it could breed this type of - obviously, it did breed this type of behavior in this one instance. But, you know, other people ideas, like, well, yeah, it's dark and nobody's out there. The security guards are in the stores. They're not out in the parking lot.

CONAN: Well, as you point out, April, it might be their responsibility to have people outside as well to make sure that shopping cart-jacking doesn't happen. But thanks very much for a distressing story.

APRIL: I'm sorry. OK.

CONAN: Here's an email from Shirley. My name is Shirley. I attended Black Friday in Des Moines. I waited outside of Best Buy in the cold for almost two hours to get a ticket for one of their special sale items. The line was blocks long. However, everybody seemed very friendly. I visited with everyone around me. We compared notes on the things we were hoping to get before the store opened. Everybody around me was wishing the others best of luck. I then went to Younkers, a popular area department store, to checkout lines with 30 minutes long. But again, strangers chatting with each other, some even watched each other's belongings if anybody needed to leave the line to go back and obtain another item for purchase.

Examples of Iowa nice. So there's - by the way, we'll challenge Iowa nice when we're in Des Moines on the 28th of December. That's after Christmas, but that's where, of course, bringing Ken Rudin for that. But, Adam Cohen, I'm sure there are many more examples of Iowa nice than perhaps the incident at the Wal-Mart in Southern California and the pepper spray.

COHEN: I think that's right. And I was driving through midtown Manhattan around midnight of Thanksgiving, and there were huge mobs in front of Macy's, in front of Best Buys, and they seem pretty orderly and well behaved. But I have to say I just thought, God, why would anyone be in that mob?

CONAN: Here's an email from Sharon in San Mateo. I went to Sears at 7 a.m. on Friday to buy a memory foam pillow for $15, usually $50. The store was out of stock, and one of the employees told me it was store policy to only have four pillows per store. Four pillows after advertising this deal to tens of thousands of people? Tellingly, there was a sign posted at the Sears entrance warning shoppers not be pushy or violent. Crazy. Their trick worked, by the way. I picked up some kids' clothing, which I hadn't plan on buying. Ugh.

One of the things you suggested is, in fact, that if they're going to have sale items that are $15 that are usually $50, they ought to have a lot of them in stock.

COHEN: That's right because it does kind of affect the mood, I would say, of the crowd if you hear stories like that, that there are only four. It makes people feel that it's, you know, they're in a scrum, and they better, you know, start, maybe even as we heard, grabbing an item out of someone else's cart.

CONAN: And let's see if we go next to - this is Jake, and Jake with us from Johnson City, Tennessee.

JAKE: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: OK.

JAKE: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JAKE: Yeah. I'm a high school English teacher. And every day, I have basically a prompt on my board that the students write and respond to in a journal just to kind of engage them for that day and get them thinking. And what I wrote about, or what I wrote on the board today as they came back from their break was that did anybody go shopping on Black Friday? If so, what were your experiences? And a few students raised their hand, and some had good experiences. Some had bad experiences.

But overall, my - what I was trying to get at was basically help them understand how desensitized we have become as a nation when we put the value of, say, for example, your last caller, a pillow over the value of, say, a human life that the fellow that was stepped over in West Virginia.

CONAN: Well, she wasn't among those, and her value of the - I'm just trying exonerate our emailer as she just went to buy a pillow not...

JAKE: I'm sorry. Sorry. This is - I'm referencing the fellow in West Virginia who died.

CONAN: Yes, the poor man who died and people stepped over him. Of course, it can cause a frenzy, and in a frenzy, people do crazy things they would not ordinarily do.

JAKE: Right. And essentially, what I'm trying to get in my theory or my opinion is that we become so desensitized because of how we live our lives so materialistically, and that's what I was trying to get my students to understand. And I think I kind of got the point across with some of them, but it's just because everything is all about me. It's the me generation thing, and I feel like as the longer we go in that direction, we're really asking the wrong questions. You know, should the government intervene? Should the stores intervene? Should whatever intervene? I really think it comes down to a basic human instinct, and we need to control that. And I feel like there's a lack of that recently.

CONAN: Jake, thanks very much for the call. And, Adam Cohen, we're going to leave it there. Thanks very much for your time today.

COHEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Adam Cohen, a regular contributor to TIME Ideas on time.com where his legal column appears every Monday. His latest, "How to Stop Black Friday Mayhem," ran today. You could find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from a studio at Yale. Tomorrow, a look at police tactics and protesters. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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