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Keeping shoppers in line on Black Friday

In 2005, a Black Friday crowd at a Walmart store in Danvers got out of control and police had to be called in. In 2005, a Black Friday crowd at a Walmart store in Danvers got out of control and police had to be called in. (Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe/File)
By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / November 18, 2011

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The doorbuster deals are ready, Christmas songs are piping through store speakers, and holiday hires are in place. Now, retailers are girding for the next challenge: crowd control on the day after Thanksgiving.

Merchants here and across the country are rolling out a variety of strategies aimed at keeping sale-seeking shoppers safe when they show up before sunrise on Black Friday, the year’s busiest retail day.

The experience has often been more like a contact sport than shopping excursion - partly because of promotions that warn of limited quantities and one-hour-only deals. But this season, retailers promise, they are determined to bring a semblance of civility to Black Friday bargain hunting. Some of the measures aimed at promoting order in the aisles include limits on the number of people entering a store at once, online floor plans so customers can map out routes ahead of time, and staggered sales throughout the day to minimize swarms.

National retailers have been putting more emphasis on crowd management tactics in recent years following several Black Friday injuries and deaths caused by insufficient security and unruly mobs fighting for merchandise. The day has traditionally been marked by long lines of cold, anxious consumers who wait for hours before being set loose to race for flat-screen televisions, hot toys, and other products until shelves are stripped bare.

In addition to reducing the potential for bodily harm - and the liability it creates - merchants are also hoping that making in-store shopping less stressful on Black Friday will help them attract more customers and better compete with online rivals.

“Stores thought that creating this frenzy was good for business. As it turns out, this puts retailers in a very precarious legal position and it creates a very inefficient system for consumers to take advantage of sales,’’ said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm in New York. “Retailers have finally figured out that they need to make it easier and more civilized for customers to shop. A happy consumer is a consumer that spends more money.’’

Target, for example, will try to quell store-opening chaos by creating a buffer zone of at least 10 feet between entrances and the start of lines. Groups of about 30 people will be ushered into the buffer zones and allowed to enter shops at timed intervals - about every 10 to 20 seconds. After the doors close behind them, the next group waiting outside will move into the buffer area.

“We want to make sure their shopping environment is safe from the moment they walk into the door to the moment they walk out with their family’s gifts,’’ said Brian Correia, Target’s assets protection team leader for Boston. “Black Friday is a big part of the holiday tradition and we want to have this excitement and make it a smoother process.’’

The Best Buy at the Cambridgeside Galleria is revamping its check-out process so that lines won’t snake through aisles and get in the way of other consumers still scouring the inventory. Instead, manager Kevin Koufos said, the electronics store will create one large line running through the center of the space to reduce congestion and accommodate more traffic.

The company will also incorporate other crowd control practices that it has used before, such as handing out tickets for merchandise available in limited quantities. That way, people waiting in line will know their goods will be there, no matter when they get inside. Store employees also will try to stave off fits of frustration by telling customers without tickets that the deals they coveted have expired before they enter the shop.

“Black Friday can be overwhelming for employees and customers,’’ said Koufos, who helped lead a Black Friday run-through at the store last weekend. “We have to make sure we are extremely organized.’’

The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently encouraged major retail chains to take precautions, such as by having trained security personnel on site, setting up barricades for pedestrians so lines don’t start directly in front of store doors, and explaining entrance procedures to customers. The agency underscored the importance of these steps by referencing a 2008 episode in which a Walmart employee in Valley Stream, N.Y., was trampled to death when a mob rushed the store’s doors at the start of Black Friday.

Since then, the discount behemoth has unveiled comprehensive crowd control plans that are tailored to each store. Walmart’s safety procedures include erecting barriers near entrances, and displaying sale items throughout stores instead of concentrating them in a few areas.

Also, for the first time, Walmart this year is holding three staggered sales - starting at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving for toys and apparel, followed by a midnight electronics event, and an 8 a.m. promotion centered on family gifts. The idea is to spread out customer traffic and appeal to consumers who prefer to stay up late. In Massachusetts, the chain will hold staggered sales at 4 and 8 a.m. at most stores to comply with state laws that prohibit retailers from opening on Thanksgiving.

Walmart is also debuting Facebook pages for each of its locations, listing Black Friday hours, sale prices, and a detailed map of store layouts.

“We want to make sure that everyone has a safe and happy experience at our stores over the holiday,’’ said Greg Rossiter, a Walmart spokesman. “The plans we have in place have been developed with that idea in mind.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.