Pepper spray and violence mar Black Friday bargain hunting

Although most storekeepers managed shoppers with few problems, several cases of retail-related violence cropped up. How can Black Friday be made safer for all who participate?

Chris Pietsch/AP
Shoppers rush into the mall at midnight in Eugene, Ore.

Incidents of retail-store violence on Black Friday served as a reminder to shoppers and storekeepers alike: With bigger crowds comes the need for more precautions.

In Los Angeles, a woman used pepper spray to gain a "competitive shopping" advantage at a Walmart, inflicting minor injuries on 20 people soon after the store opened on Thanksgiving night. No one was able to catch her before she apparently made her purchases and left the store. Police are reviewing video surveillance to help in trying to identify her, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In San Leandro, Calif., a Walmart shopper was shot and wounded in a suspected robbery early Friday, while walking to his car.

Although most retailers managed the Black Friday bargain hunters with few problems, similar cases of retail-related violence cropped up in other states as well.

Early Friday in Fayetteville, N.C., gunfire erupted at Cross Creek Mall, and police say they're looking for two suspects. At an upstate New York Walmart, two women were injured and a man charged after a fight broke out, police say. A central Florida man is behind bars after a fight broke out at a jewelry counter in a Walmart in Kissimmee, Fla.

All that occurred while millions of other Americans had yet to eat their morning bagel or bowl of cereal on the day after Thanksgiving.

Is this any way to run a holiday shopping season?

The violence is grist for those who argue that Black Friday has become too big a commercial ritual for America's good. As shoppers elbow for cut-rate goods and retailers vie for their business, the holiday season certainly seems to have lost some of its peace.

But with Black Friday now entrenched as an annual tradition, the violent incidents may serve mainly to amplify a longstanding practical question: How can this day of shopping frenzy be made safer for all who participate?

In recent years, retailers have adopted new crowd-management techniques (to avoid injuries or deaths from trampling). They've also heightened security on  the big shopping day.

It's part of a broader safety and security challenge for retailers. Overall rates of shoplifting, theft by employees, and other crime or fraud at stores cost retailers $37.1 billion in 2010, up from $33.5 billion the year before, the National Retail Federation reported earlier this year.

The incidents of Black Friday violence might prompt some pragmatic thoughts for ordinary shoppers as well as for retailers.

First, remember that the reports of pepper spray and shootings are the retail-store exception, not the rule.

But second, some consumer advisers say, the threats to safety might be one of many reasons to be cautious about shopping on Black Friday.

A blog post on the website Fashionista recently warned, "Black Friday is ... a bad time for people to keep their tempers in check," and it may not offer such great bargains, anyway. The blog allows that some people do well at finding deals (and even enjoy the competitive crush), but many other shoppers buy more than they need, buy the wrong things, or are too late to get the bargains they hope for.

Lots of Americans might do as well shopping by computer, going to the mall some other day in the next couple of weeks, or working harder at finding bargains throughout the year.

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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