Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Buyer beware. Employer, too.

In anticipation of Black Friday—the feverish, day-after-Thanksgiving shopping mayhem that marks the onset of the holiday gift-buying season and the shift in retailers’ fortunes from red to a profitable black—OSHA has issued crowd-control guidelines to help retailers protect their employees during major sales events. “Crowd-related injuries during special retail sales and promotional events have increased during recent years," said Jordan Barab, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “Many of these incidents could be prevented, and this fact sheet provides retail employers with guidelines for avoiding injuries during the holiday shopping season.”

The agency’s recommendations came in response to last year’s Black Friday tragedy, in which an employee was trampled to death at a Long Island Walmart store. The temporary worker was killed in the November 2008 incident when he was asphyxiated after being knocked to the ground and trampled by a crowd of 2,000 shoppers surging into the store for the retailer's annual day-after-Thanksgiving sale. OSHA cited Walmart for inadequate crowd management, including failing to provide employees with the necessary training and tools to safely manage a large crowd of shoppers, thus exposing workers to the danger of being crushed. The citation carried a proposed fine of $7,000, the maximum allowable penalty for a serious violation. In exchange for agreeing not to prosecute Walmart for the incident, the district attorney required the company to implement a statewide crowd-management plan for post-Thanksgiving Day events at each of its 92 New York stores, among other conditions.

According to OSHA, Walmart had not used the crowd-control measures recommended in its recent guidelines. Among them: Employ trained security personnel or police officers on site. Set up barricades or rope lines for pedestrians and crowd control well in advance of customers’ arrival, arranged so that the line does not start right at the store entrance. Explain approach and entrance procedures to the arriving public. Don’t let more customers into the store when it’s at maximum occupancy. Don’t block or lock exit doors.

A few weeks ago, with the approach of the 2009 season, Walmart released a statement assuring shoppers that customer and employee safety is a top priority for the retailer and that store-specific safety plans have been implemented at all of its U.S. stores. “As an added measure, most of our U.S. stores will be open 24 hours for our post-Thanksgiving Day events. Our in-store specials will be available in all U.S. stores starting at 5:00 a.m,” the November 11 press release noted.

But expanded store hours won’t do much to quell the danger, according to one analyst, who said the hordes of shoppers often are incited by retailers’ admonitions that the goods featured at “low-low prices” in their sales ads are meagerly stocked. “We saw the stampede at [the] Wal-Mart store in New York last year,” Burt Flickinger, managing director of consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, told CNN.com. “The stampede happened because so many of the deals were advertised as limited supply.”

Yesterday Walmart issued another press release boasting its pending bargains. “Hit the Stores Friday Morning: $3 sleepwear for the family, a $298 laptop and more,” the retailer announced. “Walmart’s day-after-Thanksgiving event from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. highlights the gifts moms want for their family. All items are available in limited quantities. Sorry, no rainchecks.”

Next up: the cyber-rush
The crowd-leery shoppers, the faint of heart, will wait out the weekend. They'll make the mad dash on Monday, from the comfort of their cubicles. They are on your payroll, no doubt.

“This year, 53.5 percent of workers with internet access, or 68.8 million people, will shop for holiday gifts from work,” says the National Retail Federation. (The retail trade group released its own guide for stores on effective crowd management in anticipation of Black Friday.) And those employees plan to spend nearly two full working days (14.4 hours) on average shopping online from a work computer this holiday season, according to the second annual “Shopping on the Job: Online Holiday Shopping and Workplace Internet Safety” survey conducted on behalf of ISACA, a nonprofit association of 86,000 information technology (IT) professionals. One employee in 10 plans to spend at least 30 hours shopping online at work, the survey found.

The costs to companies of employees’ online holiday shopping is potentially staggering: One in four IT professionals estimate that their company will lose $15,000 or more per employee in productivity during this year’s holiday season. That’s not counting the threat of viruses, spam and phishing attacks, which can cost millions in destruction or compromise of corporate data.

“With the Internet now available to almost any employee in the workplace, it’s unrealistic to think that companies can completely stop the use of work computers for online shopping,” said Robert Stroud, ISACA international vice president. “What companies can and should do is educate employees about the risks of online shopping and remind them of their company’s security policy. This is especially important this year, when the convenience of shopping online may be very appealing to employees whose workloads have doubled or tripled because of downsizing.”

ISACA offered tips for employers on how the IT team can minimize the potential damage:
  • Educate employees. Blocking sites can do more harm than good, causing employees to seek out less-secure ways to get around your blockade. Education works better.
  • Get employees on board with learning by teaching them how to protect both their work computers and their home computers.
  • Reinforce what you teach by having employees sign an acceptable-use policy every year.
  • Offer a “safe zone” for holiday shopping—create an online sandbox that can be taken down after the holidays.

And hold your “bah humbug” for now. It’s not all bad, according to Phil Rist, executive vice president for strategic initiatives at BIGresearch. He tells the National Retail Federation: “Although employers may cringe at the thought of their workers browsing or buying gifts online at work, there is a potential bright side. Employees who spend ten minutes at the office completing their holiday shopping online are likely to be much more efficient than those who use extended lunch breaks waiting in line at the store and fighting holiday traffic on the way back to work.”

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