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Across the country Wal-Mart workers, others protest Black Friday

Monitor StaffThe Christian Science Monitor

Updated 7:40 a.m.

On Thursday evening, the Black Friday skirmishes began between Walmart and some of its employees.

Workers staged walkouts in stores in Dallas, Miami, and Kenosha, Wis., according to OUR Walmart, an employee group that's been agitating for better wages, benefits, and work schedules for more than a year. Workers also went on strike San Leandro, Calif., Clovis, N.M., Ocean City, Md., Orlando and St. Cloud, Fla., and Baton Rouge, La., The Nation reported early this morning.

Numerous Twitter posts suggest that overnight protests also hit other Walmart stores, as supporters of the strikers posted photos and messages online. In Wichita, Kan., about a dozen protesters gathered around signs and banners such as "Support Walmart Workers" and "People Before Profits."

"Denied entry to Walmart! Why try to silence us? Maybe because they're scared of us!" one strike supporter tweeted from Denver.

How extensive these protests are – and how many workers are involved in the protests – are not immediately clear.

The larger and more visible protests are just beginning to get under way this morning.

OUR Walmart's website lists nine cities where Walmart rallies will take place. The first one took place Thursday evening in Miami. But the rest of the events get under way early this morning, starting at 5:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m EST) in Chicago. That will be quickly followed by a protest at 6 a.m. (7 a.m. EST) in Milwaukee; and then roll out in Washington, D.C. (7:30 a.m. EST); Dallas; Los Angeles; Sacramento, Calif.; San Francisco; and Seattle.

Given its nearly 4,000 stores, these job actions are unlikely to stop – or even slow – Walmart's Black Friday push. The strikers appear to be aiming for visibility rather than confrontation.

"We also ask you to conduct all actions in support of the strikers peacefully, in a way to permit access to the stores and disrupt Walmart operations and worker productivity no more than necessary to express and demonstrate support for strikers and call on Walmart to change," OUR Walmart says on its website.

The workers group has the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and is gaining support from the loosely organized Occupy Wall Street movement in some cities.

Walmart dismisses the movement as the creation of UFCW agitators.

“Many of our associates have urged us to do something about the UFCW's latest round of publicity stunts,” Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg told the Monitor's Gloria Goodale. “They don't think it's right that a few associates that are being coerced by the UFCW are being portrayed by the media as representative of what it's like to work at Walmart.”

The next few hours could begin to reveal just how narrow or broad the movement really is.

Updated 6:33 a.m.

Black Friday starts with a bang. From the Associated Press:

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Black Friday began with a bang in New Jersey — literally.

The U.S. Geological Survey's website says a 2.1-magnitude earthquake was measured near Clementon, about 15 miles southeast of Philadelphia in Camden County.

The quake was felt at a little after midnight.

It was the second earthquake to hit New Jersey this month. On Nov. 5, a 2.0-magnitude quake struck the Ringwood area in Passaic County.

Updated 6:07 a.m.

All the big chains have opened – either on Thanksgiving evening or in the wee hours of Friday, chipping away at one of the last bastions of family oriented holidays.

The apparent success of Walmart and other chains that opened early this Thanksgiving suggests that the desire for a deal trumps many Americans' desire to stay at home. So it will be interesting to see what happens to jcpenney, one of the few major chains to resist starting its Black Friday early. Its stores have just opened on the East Coast, an almost civilized time when most people might actually be close to waking up.

Among its Black Friday deals:

$5 kids pajama pants or tops $8 crockpot, toaster oven or coffee pot $10 Arizona skinny jeans $12 men’s dress shirts $25 women’s boots – over 50 styles

"While we know that many of our competitors are opening on Thanksgiving, we want to honor the American tradition of Thanksgiving by giving our customers and team members the opportunity to spend this special day with family and friends," writes spokeswoman Sarah Holland in an e-mail.

But here's a thought: Could online shopping serve as a way for early shoppers to get their deals without having to take such a chunk of time out of family time (and sleep)?

The move to online shopping is already under way. While forecasts call for overall holiday shopping to grow only about 4 percent this year over 2011, online shopping is expected to increase by15 percent, Forrester Research forecasts.

" I think we're not too far off from seeing more people shopping online on Black Friday rather than in-stores, but retailers continually stumble out of the gates" with their web presence, writes Michael Brim, founder and CEO of the Black Friday deals watch site BFAds.net, in an e-mail. "Dell, who has an online-only Black Friday offering, was unusable almost immediately after starting their Black Friday sales. And while it's still possible to persevere and get the deals, the experience is anything less than pleasant."

If retailers started spending more time improving the online experience when they're flooded with shoppers, they might eventually be able to have a rationale for limiting Black Friday sales to Black Friday.

"Kohl's did something interesting on Wednesday by having an improvised queue system where the site never went down (or really slowed down), but people were having to wait up to 45 minutes to access the site," Mr. Brim writes. "I think that's a much nicer compromise than releasing your sale to the wolves."

The switch may take a while. Online sales account for something over 10 percent of holiday sales, so bricks and mortar franchises still have a huge edge. Until they figure out how to accommodate the online rush, they'll feel continued pressure to open earlier and earlier in a bid to capture the maximum dollars.

Updated 5:18 a.m.

So what are the deals that people are snapping up this Black Friday?

Big-screen TVs and laptops are always big sales items on the big shopping day. But if there was one item that everyone seems to want to get their hands on, it's Apple's iPad 2.

They were popular at Walmart, which offered iPads with 16 gigabytes of memory for $399 plus a $75 Walmart gift card. In a twist, Walmart guaranteed availability by Christmas for shoppers who showed up within the first hour at its stores, although the guarantee didn't amount to that much, according to the News for Shoppers website.

An iPad at that price is certainly a good deal for Apple aficionados, but not a great one.

"Apple products are rarely discounted, so no one was expecting great deals on the iPad or iPad mini, but I thought one or two stores might try to make a splash by offering the Google Nexus 7 or similar tablet at an unbeatable price this Black Friday," writes Michael Brim, founder and CEO of the Black Friday deals watch site BFAds.net. "That didn't happen."

So outside of the popular iPad, tablet deals didn't wow.

At 2 a.m. Friday, BFAds was still showing deals on several HDTVs, but by 3:30 a.m, they were gone.

By 5 a.m, the website was showing a Seiki 40-inch HDTV for $200 after rebate as one of its hottest deals. Rival online-deal website FatWallet.com was showing a Toshiba 40-inch HDTV for $179 from Best Buy as one of its most popular Black Friday deals.

So what other good deals are still out there?

Video games: BFAds.net lists among others Fable: The Journey (X360) for $14.99 and Max Payne 3 (X360) for $19.99, as well as Sony 3D Glasses - $19.99. Laptops: BFAds.net lists a 15.6 inch Compaq Presario for $179; FatWallet.com lists a 15.6" Lenovo for $188 as a popular pick. Other items: BFAds.net points to a Razor A Kick Scooter for $19.99 and a Body Rider Fan Bike for $79.99. FatWallet.com highlights a $10 off coupon for any Macy's purchase of $25 or more and a 28-piece Rubbermaid storage set for $6.92 from Walmart. Another website, BlackFriday.com, lists Marmot apparel and gear for 30 percent off at Amazon.

Updated 3:30 a.m.

If you're a savvy Black Friday shopper, you've studied the layout of the stores you want to shop days before the event. You've scouted out the most efficient way to get the items you want and get to the checkout line.

You may have even gone online to look at store layouts, which are even available on Google Maps. (Check it out with the store you're in, or click here to see the store then click on the marker and zoom in to see the layout of a Best Buy in Compton, Calif.)

But now that you're standing in line for checkout, does anything look different? Take a look around (that is, if you can see anything with all those 60-inch TVs sitting in people's shopping carts).

You may notice that the store looks less cluttered. Maybe the aisles are wider. That's what stores do when anticipating a rush of customers, such as on Black Friday. They tweak the store's layout.

Here's the tweaking jcpenney has done for Black Friday:

Along with holiday décor incorporating jcpenney’s button campaign, each jcpenney store features a refreshed presentation this season:

Racks have less merchandise, are featured side-by-side and have been moved 18 inches away from the aisle, offering a cleaner and less cluttered presentation. Color blocking is used across departments to create strong merchandise statements. Brands and prices are prominently highlighted while sitting/resting areas have also been added throughout the store.

"We know that the first thing on our customers’ holiday shopping lists is a convenient, hassle-free shopping experience," writes jcpenney spokeswoman Sarah Holland in an e-mail. "Team members throughout the store will be equipped with mobile checkout devices, giving customers a fast and easy way to complete their credit card purchases so that they can spend less time in line. As part of this service, customers also have the option of having their receipt e-mailed to them."

At Walmart, they "make the flow smoother," says one knowledgeable observer. "They staff up appropriately. There are a lot of people out in the red shirts that are big-event staffs, making sure folks are in line."

Online stores also staff up to anticipate the rush of orders. This year, for example, Amazon is hiring 50,000 seasonal workers to help fulfill customer orders, an Amazon spokeswoman writes in an e-mail.

Of course, all that tweaking doesn't eliminate long lines and delays at the store – or even sometimes online.

Updated Friday 1:55 a.m.

Two minutes before the doors opened on Black Friday at the Walmart store in Framingham, Mass., whoops went up from the hundreds of shoppers waiting in a line that snaked out into the parking lot.

It was that way at Walmart stores across the country.

"WalMart looking like a #Zoo! Every parking spot is full!" tweeted Atlanta resident Antonio Citty Eagle.

"You can't tell that this line wraps around four aisles for a 10:00 PM sale on televisions," tweeted Andrew Grossman of Portland, Ore.

Walmart's controversial strategy of opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day in most of its stores around the United States seemed to be paying off. "

"It's pretty obvious that this is a successful day," says one eyewitness at the Framingham, Mass., store. "The stores are busy and a lot of people are coming out."

It's hard to say whether so much traffic on one of the busiest days of the shopping season means a strong holiday season in general.

"We would warn against reading too much into the performance of retail sales on Black Friday as there is little evidence that it will set the tone for sales during the whole holiday season," writes Paul Dales senior US economist for Toronto-based Capital Economics, in a recent analysis. In fact, a look at Black Friday sales going back to 1992 suggests that the stronger Black Friday sales are, the weaker holiday retail sales will be.

Of course, it's way too early to tell at this point how strong Black Friday sales will be, let alone sales for the holiday season. The forecasts suggest good, but not great, holiday sales for merchants. The National Retail Federation forecasts a 4.1 percent rise in sales in November and December compared with the same period a year ago. (Interestingly, its survey showed slightly fewer Americans planning to shop on Black Friday this year, 147 million vs. 152 million in 2011.) IHS Global Insight, a Lexington, Mass., economic research firm forecasts holiday retail sales will rise 3.9 percent, not as strong as the 5.5 percent growth last year.

Not everyone is so sanguine. When CreditDonkey, a credit-card comparison website, asked 1,125 consumes what they planned to spend on holiday shopping, 50.7 percent said less than last year and only 31.5 percent said more.

One reason for their reluctance: high anxiety over government policy – the so-called "fiscal cliff" that could send taxes soaring and ax government services beginning in 2013. Only five other times during the past half century have more consumers spontaneously mentioned their unease about government policies in the monthly Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment surveys, writes Richard Curtin, director of the surveys, in his November. analysis.

Still, those worries seem not to have dented consumer confidence, which remains near five-year highs, he adds.

"Consumers typically want to celebrate the holidays by shopping, and in the past have shown their ability to ignore negative fiscal policy headlines during the end-of-year shopping season," Margaret Taylor, a senior credit officer for New York-based Moody's Investors Service, in a report released earlier this week.

Updated 11:35 pm

Here's a tweet that has been bouncing around twit-o-sphere today. It reads: "Black friday: because only in America people trample each other for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have."

The anti-consumption sentiment strikes a chord with many. But do shoppers really trample each other on Black Friday?

It's happened at least once: In 2008, Walmart worker in Valley Stream, N.Y., was crushed to death when some 2,000 early-morning shoppers ripped doors off hinges and surged into the store in search of Black Friday deals. As the Boston Globe reports Thursday, Walmart is still battling the $7,000 fine by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the incident.

And last year, in another notorious incident at Walmart, a shopper pepper sprayed her fellow bargain hunters at a Los Angeles store. Apparently, she really wanted that Xbox 360.

Still, these incidents tend to be the exception rather than the rule. CBS News posted a rundown of Black Friday injuries in recent years, and most of the perpetrators are robbers, not frenzied shoppers.

Still, tramplings happen. Here's an article from Slate offering advice to those planning to attend Obama's inauguration in 2009 on how not to become a casualty of humankind's herd mentality.

-- Eoin O'Carroll

Updated 10:43 pm

Unlike the term "Black Friday," "Buy Nothing Day" doesn't really need explaining. Started by anti-consumerist activists in the early 1990s and later championed by Adbusters magazine, Buy Nothing Day encourages citizens to "take back" Christmas by publicly cutting up their credit cards, dressing up like zombies and ambling through shopping malls, rolling through stores in a long conga line of empty carts, or simply staying home and enjoying the company of friends and family.

More recently, Buy Nothing Day has been championed by those calling for a "Buy Nothing Chrismas."

"By resisting the impulse to shop for deals on Black Friday we stand at the feet of the retail titans and, with the power of non-cooperation, we challenge the injustices of poor labor conditions, exploitative hiring practices, unfair monopolies, and irresponsible resource extraction," wrote Aiden Enns, the editor of the progressive Christian magazine Geez in an op-ed in the Washington Post last year. Enns encourages Christians to "take a consumer fast" on Black Friday as a way of developing the power to resist temptation.

-- Eoin O'Carroll

Updated 9:33 pm

Chances are, you've heard that despite its ominous sound, the phrase "Black Friday" actually has its origins something positive, namely the first day of the year that retailers operate at a profit, or "in the black."

Like many widely accepted etymologies, this explanation is completely bogus. As linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out last year, the term "Black Friday" originally carried the negative connotations you would expect from such a phrase. One of the earliest known uses came from those worries about the Jacobite rising of 1745, and it was used again to describe the financial panics of 1869 and 1873.

Zimmer cites Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a frequent contributor to the American Dialect Society, who dug up the earliest known use of the phrase to refer to the day after Thanksgiving. It appeared in November 1951 issue of "Factory Management and Maintenance," and it referred to the high level of worker absenteeism on that day.

The first known use of "Black Friday" to mean the shopping rush appeared in 1961, and it too was not exactly positive: The term was coined by Philadelphia police officers to describe the chaos and heavy traffic that accompanied the day after Thanksgiving.

Bloomberg's John Tozzi writes that retailers attempted to rename the day "Big Friday," but with little success. The name stuck, and businesses did their best to roll with it by inventing an alternative etymology.

The term became widespread beginning in 1975, which incidentally is the same year that Steely Dan released their song, "Black Friday," which you should definitely start blasting now, especially if you are reading this on a mobile phone while waiting in a checkout line,

-- Eoin O'Carroll

Updated 8:44 p.m.

For many retailers, Black Friday is kicking off a few hours earlier this year. Kmart, Walmart, ToysRUs, and Sears, for instance, are opening their doors at 8pm, and Target opens at 9pm.

These earlier opening hours are no doubt welcome by some shoppers, particularly the types who are loath to rise at 4am for what is now considered a traditional door buster. But others are questioning the morality of opening stores on Thanksgiving, a day traditionally observed by expressing gratitude for things that one already has, and not by attempting to acquire more stuff.

Resentment of "Grey Thursday" – a term that neatly captures the moral ambivalence resulting from the collision of these two American traditions – is felt most acutely among retail workers, who, unlike potential shoppers, cannot opt to avoid the malls. As the Monitor's Gloria Goodale reported on Wednesday, Walmart, which is not unionized, is experiencing greater than usual pushback from its workers, with many threatening to walk out.

CNN reports that OUR Walmart, a group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, expects thousands of workers –"associates" in Wal-speak – to participate in wildcat strikes.

But of course Walmart is simply responding to the logic of the market: if its doors were to remain closed, shoppers would simply migrate to the store's competitors.

As Forbes's Laura Heller puts it: "Thanksgiving or no, the almighty deal will win out. Like it or not."

-- Eoin O'Carroll