Bad Economy, Dangerous Holiday Shopping

Pressures facing consumers may contribute to an uptick in violence at stores.

Dec. 2, 2008 — -- For shoppers concerned about their safety, this season has brought news both good and bad. The good news is that, as in years past, retailers have beefed up security to supervise large crowds seeking cut-rate holiday deals.

The bad news: In the past four days, America's retail stores and malls have seen several shootings and the trampling to death of a man caught in a stampede of overeager shoppers.

Security expert Ralph Witherspoon said the worst might not be over yet, which is due, in part, to today's slumping economy.

"People are out of jobs, and they still want to do something for their families for Christmas," he said.

The pressures facing today's consumers, he said, might contribute to an uptick in crime and violence at stores.

Lt. Kevin Smith, the commanding officer of the police department's public information office in Nassau County, N.Y. -- where the Wal-Mart temp was trampled to death Friday -- said shoppers "are trying to compensate for their lack of income by making sure that they get in and get in first. ... The stores are getting a larger volume of people over a short period of time.

"The problem is controlling those crowds," he said.

According to the National Retail Federation, at least one kind of crime -- shoplifting -- is on the rise.

Of the more than 100 retail executives surveyed by the federation in October, 74 percent reported an increase in shoplifting.

"We do feel the economy is a trigger for someone taking an opportunity to commit a crime that they otherwise would not think about," said Joseph LaRocca, the vice president of loss prevention at the federation.

The federation has also acknowledged the violent incidents that left a disturbing mark this year on the weekend of Black Friday, the kickoff to the holiday shopping season when retailers traditionally are in the black, or turn a profit.

In addition to the Friday morning stampede that led to the Wal-Mart worker's death, there was a spate of shootings: Two men shot each other to death at a Toys "R" Us store in Palm Desert, Calif., Friday; a pregnant woman was injured in a shooting at an Atlanta mall Saturday and armed robbers killed one man at an Express store in a suburban Miami mall Monday.

Still, LaRocca said that the federation, overall, hasn't recorded an increase in violent crime at retail locations. At least one retail chain -- Target -- reports that violent crime at its stores is actually down this year in comparison to last year, a company spokeswoman told

"Retail creates a safe shopping environment, but we are a place that invites customers in to shop," LaRocca said. "Unfortunately, those incidents occur as they occur in crowded places across the country."

Security expert Chris McGoey of cautioned against drawing specific connections between the economy, the holidays and retail violence.

"Not to say that shopping at this time of the year doesn't add stress to the mix," McGoey said. But, he said, "there are shootings everywhere throughout the year."

Toys "R" Us, which declined to comment for this story, issued a statement last week that sought to distance the shooting at its Palm Desert store from holiday shopping mayhem and, specifically, the post-Thanksgiving consumer frenzy commonly known as Black Friday.

"Our understanding is that this act seems to have been the result of a personal dispute between the individuals involved," the company said. "Therefore, it would be inaccurate to associate the events of today with Black Friday."

The trampling incident at Wal-Mart, meanwhile, has been linked directly to Black Friday shopping chaos.

In a statement last week, the store said that it had erected barriers and had added both Wal-Mart security personnel and contracted security workers in anticipation of a large Black Friday crowd. The incident, the store said, occurred "despite all of our precautions."

But a local law enforcement official last week still criticized the store: Nassau County police spokesman Det. Lt. Michael Fleming told The Associated Press that the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., didn't have enough security.

Smith, the commanding officer of the police department's public information office, told Monday that police were still investigating the store's security situation on the day of the incident.

Anything they learn, Smith said, could be used to help prevent another tragedy.

In a statement released late Monday, Hank Mullany, the president of Wal-Mart's northeast division, said the company would continue "to partner closely with Nassau County law enforcement officials as they conduct their investigation."

"Nothing is more important to us than providing a safe and secure shopping environment for our customers and associates," Mullany said.

Whether it's the holiday shopping season, McGoey and Witherspoon agreed that stores could be doing more on the security front. They said that security personnel -- whether they work directly for a retailer or are contracted from an outside company -- often receive minimal training.

The training they do get, Witherspoon said, is largely focused on shoplifting, not violence or even crowd control, because that's the most common security issue afflicting retailers.

Stores are also reluctant to invest money in security, Witherspoon said.

"Ultimately, what happens in most companies and in most stores, security and loss prevention [are] perceived as an expense," he said. "It's a drain on the bottom line and, therefore, store management and corporate management are always going to have better things to do with that money -- new promotions, new advertising, whatever the case may be."

LaRocca of the National Retail Federation said that, typically, retailers spend a little less than one-half of 1 percent of their annual sales on security personnel.

But, he said, since the terrorist attacks of 2001, security at stores has intensified. Most recently, the federation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security launched a joint effort to help all businesses train employees on how to respond when a shooting takes place at their workplaces.

"Security has always been a top priority of retailers," he said. "This is something that we think about all of the time."

It's not, however, something retailers talk about all the time.

Several retailers declined requests by to discuss their security practices.

"The more we talk about what we're doing, the more we help out the bad guy, so that's not a subject we address," said Jim Sluzewski, spokesman for Macy's Inc.

At least some store security precautions are fairly obvious, however, especially on Black Friday. Many big chains distribute special tickets to customers lined up early outside the stores; the tickets guarantee customers the opportunity to purchase certain, heavily discounted items before the stores actually open that day.

Best Buy has been handing out Black Friday tickets for years and that -- combined with the practice of store employees standing outside offering guidance to customers early on -- has helped cut down on the morning shopping rush. Best Buy also stages Black Friday "dress rehearsals" so less-experienced employees are prepared for the big day.

"We've prided ourselves on being very proactive in terms of trying to reduce risks during this time," Best Buy spokesman Brian Lucas said. "It's more of an art than a science."