Black Friday, the day when many retailers hold post-Thanksgiving blowout sales, is generally referred to as such because stores are able to pull themselves out of the red and into the black. Last year, however, the name took on a more somber connotation when a worker at a Long Island Wal-Mart was trampled to death as eager customers surged into the store. Now, in an attempt to prevent similar tragedies, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released guidelines to help retailers protect their employees and customers.

"It's not uncommon for people to be injured, it is uncommon for people to die" during a Black Friday sale, says Jordan Barab, OSHA's acting assistant secretary of labor. "We're not trying to specify exactly what each employer is supposed to do, our main message here is that you need to have a plan."

Understanding how crowds of shoppers behave--and what is motivating them to come out for a Black Firday promotion, aside from the bargain basement prices--is the key to such planning. For shoppers, Black Friday sales are "partially a social phenomenon to sort of exercise their shopping prowess against this mass of people," says Kevin Leicht, a professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, and a member of its Center for the Study of Group Processes.

In addition to having a competitive element, Leicht says that Black Friday sales are also something of a spectator sport. "Some people go to the Super Bowl, others go to the Indianapolis 500, others go to Black Friday," he says. As crowds gather, the likelihood of one shopper's getting in trouble for fighting dirty for that last Tickle-Me-Elmo decreases. With anonymity comes a diminished sense of responsibility.

This social phenomenon that Leicht discusses may explain why Black Friday is still such a big event. He says, "You would think with all of the possibilities for online shopping and as much retail competition as there is, that the Black Friday phenomenon would be decreasing if anything, and it's really not." He suggests that making deals more selective by having them on different types of goods at different times can take some of the heat out of the experience.

Of course, the problem with that measure is it could detract from the atmosphere of scarcity that retailers often seek to create on Black Friday. OSHA believes that it's guidelines will help retailers be safer without breaking the bank. Says Barab: "I think generally people are happy to know that there's some planning going into their safety, so no, I don't think [the guidelines will] cut into [retailers‚] profitability at all."

Some of OSHA's guidelines such as making a plan, communicating it to employees and ensuring that you have enough staff and security are pretty intuitive. Here are some suggestions you may not have already considered:

  • Well before shoppers start arriving, set up barricades to corral the crowd. Position the start of the line away from the entrance to the store and make sure it has breaks and turns at regular intervals so customers can't easily push from the back of the line.
  • If you have hot ticket items that you know people will rush for, consider using an Internet lottery.
  • Offer numbered wristbands or tickets to early birds, and allow them to access sales items ahead of the rest of the crowd.
  • Equip your personnel stationed outside of the store with radios, mobile phones, or walkie-talkies, so that they can communicate with their co-workers inside the store. Also, use a PA system or bullhorns to address the crowds.
  • Let customers in in small groups and, when the store hits maximum occupancy, wait until other shoppers leave before letting in more people.