A victim of Wal-Mart’s greed

December 5, 2008

Petrino DiLeo explains how the retail giant's drive for profits set the stage for the tragedy in Long Island.

ONE WEEK ago today, Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old temporary employee at a Wal-Mart store in Long Island, died of asphyxiation after a crowd of 2,000 Black Friday shoppers busted through the store's doors and trampled him.

In the seven days since, the sensationalized stories in the mainstream media have largely placed the blame on the shoppers--with Damour as a tragic casualty of American consumers' insatiable need to buy the latest gadgets and widgets.

But this narrative distorts reality and leaves the rightful target--Wal-Mart itself--off the hook.

The real story is much more complex. Black Friday--the Friday after Thanksgiving--is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. It got its name because historically, it was the day that retailers moved from losses to profits--from the red to the black--for the fiscal year as holiday shopping got underway.

In reality, however, Black Friday isn't the busiest shopping day of the year, as the media stated endlessly. The busiest shopping days historically are each of the four Saturdays preceding Christmas.

Nassau County police are preparing to charge shoppers rather than Wal-Mart management in the trampling death of a worker
Nassau County police are preparing to charge shoppers rather than Wal-Mart management in the trampling death of a worker (Tim Wiencis | Splash News)

What's the importance of that? Americans have come to put off holiday shopping, rather than load up at the beginning of the season. This is likely a result, at least in part, of the drop in real wages that Americans have experienced in the past 30 years. With less savings and income, most people wait as long as they can to make holidays purchases.

This pattern makes retailers nervous. The holiday shopping season accounts for about one-quarter of annual retail sales--making it the make-or-break stretch for a lot of companies.

Thus, retailers have a strong incentive to get holiday shopping started as early as possible. That means holiday decorations and specialty aisles loaded with ornaments, lights and other gear go up after Halloween. Plus, there's been an explosion of what have come to be known as "doorbuster" specials.

What happens is that retailers take a handful of big-ticket items--for example, high-definition televisions, laptop computers, etc.--and offer huge discounts. This year, for example, Wal-Mart knocked down the price of Magnavox Blu-ray players from $198 to $128. It also offered a $398 PC and a $175 gas grill.

The dirty secret, however, is that stores like Wal-Mart carry only a limited number of these discounted items in each store. That creates artificial scarcity--with crowds of people showing up to try to score one of the doorbuster items.

From Wal-Mart's perspective, it's win-win. Once people are in the door, they're likely to buy something, even after the doorbuster items are depleted.

Given the current economic context--the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and a recession that has already been underway for a year and looks likely to get worse--is it any wonder that 2,000 people showed up at the Wal-Mart where Jdimytai Damour was hired on as a temp?

That kind of line isn't in the same league as people lining up by the thousands for a job fair or at soup kitchens. But it still speaks to the growing desperation caused by the crisis. Doorbuster sales prey on the fact that people will get up and stand in line in for hours if it means saving money and still being able to give nice gifts.

AT THE same time, despite being one of the biggest players in cultivating the doorbuster phenomenon, Wal-Mart doesn't take many precautions to control crowds. That makes Damour's death the almost inevitable result of company policy.

The biggest question of all: Why was Damour, a temporary worker with no training in crowd control or security placed at the front of the store? Why wasn't there more security in place or other measures with a crowd that size lined up outside the store?

It turns out that the store manager put Damour in front simply because he was 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds--thinking his size alone would help him to control the crowd. When Damour tried to shield a pregnant woman from the advancing throng, it was an act that he paid for with his life.

"This is something that as a retailer, you need to know about," said lawyer Jordan Hecht, whose firm is representing Damour's family in a suit against Wal-Mart, the mall where the store was located and the security company contracted to the mall. "I don't think that it takes anyone with special training to understand that this is going to happen...There are many different things available to Wal-Mart, none of which were used."

Even more incredible is that even after the crowd broke through and trampled Damour, Wal-Mart at first didn't close the store. People trying to help Damour were jostled as shoppers continued to stream in. Eventually, Wal-Mart shut the location down--but just for three hours, so it wouldn't miss critical sales targets.

Meanwhile, the Nassau County Police, rather than hold Wal-Mart accountable, is scanning surveillance tape to identify individual shoppers and charge them. "We are reviewing film...from individual cell phones, from cameras that are in place in the store, trying to identify, if, in fact, we can identify, people that are culpable in this," Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey told Fox News.

For its part, Wal-Mart has managed two meager statements, attributed to Hank Mullany, a Wal-Mart senior vice president in charge of the chain's Northeast Division.

The first, issued the day that Damour died, was less an apology than a statement that tried to preemptively absolve Wal-Mart of any responsibility. "We expected a large crowd this morning and added additional internal security, additional third party security, additional store associates, and we worked closely with the Nassau County Police," the statement read. "We also erected barricades. Despite all of our precautions, this unfortunate event occurred."

A second statement issued December 1 read in part, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Damour's family. We're focused on trying to help the family and our associates during this difficult time. We will continue to partner closely with Nassau County law enforcement officials as they conduct their investigation. Nothing is more important to us than providing a safe and secure shopping environment for our customers and associates."

Wal-Mart Watch, a union-initiated watchdog Web site, had a much more relevant point to make in its statement following Damour's death:

Workers should have had a voice in setting policy for Black Friday operations across the country. We believe that if they had, it is doubtful that an untrained, temporary worker with little support would have been required to hold back 2,000 customers, putting employees' and customers' lives at risk, and ultimately ending in tragedy.

Further Reading

From the archives