An Open Letter to Retailers Concerning Black Friday

Thanksgiving is a time for gathering with friends and family, and lots of food. Over the last few years, Thanksgiving has come to mean something else for Americans -- a reason to get up early the day after to go shopping.

The origin of the term Black Friday appears to have come from the Philadelphia Police Department in 1966 in reference to mobbed streets, traffic jams, and the associated mayhem. The operative word being "mayhem." Black Friday was never meant to be a happy shopping phrase.

Black Friday is discussed with a giggle or two and investing millions in "doorbuster" ad campaigns that begin earlier and earlier each year. Another trend has popped up since the launch of many a successful Black Friday campaign: more people are dying every year on Black Friday.

Author's note: Many retailers have learned that organizing people into frenzied mobs isn't a good idea and have discontinued the "doorbuster" practice and even moved the campaigns online. For that, I thank you, and please understand this letter is not intended for or directed to you.

Dear Murderers:

Your ad campaigns and deep discounts on very limited inventory are killing people. That's right, getting people into your stores early so they can get a cheap holiday price on the four items you've reserved at a loss is causing harm.

Last year, people died. The year before, people died. This year, people died. Unless you start acting responsibly, people will die next year. In spite of what the courts or your fleet of attorneys might tell you, you're at least partially responsible for their deaths.

You knew that people have been dying in your stores or while waiting in lines in the freezing cold for years. Instead of organizing, preparing, and acting accordingly, you continue to feed the beast.

The most heinous death from this year's poorly organized frenzy came in the form of a New York man being trampled to death in the early hours of Black Friday. A Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., was the site of a gruesome death of a Wal-Mart employee as the doors opened for the doorbuster sale.

Jdimytai Damour, 34, was trampled to death as a frenzied mob attacked the store seeking bargains. A paper sign placed outside the Wal-Mart directed shoppers with a handwritten note stating "Blitz Line Starts Here." Now that's brilliant preparation.

Think I'm exaggerating? Check out Newsday's photostream.

The telltale Wal-Mart entrance crushed metal door frame alone is enough to make a reasonable person ill. The mental images of a dying man struggling for his life while an out of control mob relentlessly crushes him brought tears to my eyes. Others were trampled as well, but only one man died from his wounds.

Oddly enough, I didn't see any Wal-Mart executives waiting in the cold or interrupting their holiday joy in line for the blitz. I guess the campaigns were a wrap and they were enjoying time with their families. Perhaps the bean counters had already explained that higher revenues would more than make up for wrongful death and personal injury suit losses from inciting riots and killing people.

This can't be the search campaign Wal-Mart (with the unfortunate slogan "Save money, Live Better") was hoping for. Google's related searches were "walmart death" and "walmart trampled," while Google's top news result featured the headline, "Questions Loom About Black Friday Death at Wal-Mart."

A Best Buy TV ad campaign made light of the long lines and waiting depicting shoppers falling through the roof of a hypothetical store while encouraging viewers to avoid this behavior. Shop responsibly, go online, use your head. Yet, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that two local teens ate their Thanksgiving dinner in a Best Buy parking lot to ensure a spot when the store opened.

People are stupid and there's nothing funny about people killing each other for bargains. It's not a joke that two men shot each other and died in a Toys R Us in California this year. Naturally, Toys R Us suggested that holiday blitz shopping had nothing to do with their deaths. Maybe this is a problem for the gun control people, or maybe the tension surrounding holiday shopping really does drive people mad.

When has organizing a frenzied mass of humans ever ended well in the history of mankind? The wisdom of crowds is a crap Internet fantasy. We aren't living in the Gene Roddenberry "Star Trek" Utopian society.

People are more desperate than ever now that the economy has tanked. We're living in a world that allows stupid people to take free money to buy houses they can't afford while allowing others to get rich from their stupidity.

There is a better way. More than 72 percent of the American population is online. Devote resources to finding better ways before more people die. Until you do, their blood is on your hands retailers. Enjoy your holiday season and sleep well.

About the author

Kevin M. Ryan is CEO of the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing. Kevin's former roles include VP, Interactive Media for the Interpublic Group agency Wahlstrom Interactive, and CEO of Kinetic Results, an Advertising Age Top 20 search engine marketing firm.