About 15,000 shoppers swarmed the center the day after Thanksgiving, shoving and fighting their way to the bargains, mall spokeswoman Tamara DeMilt says. Police were called in six times. "They stormed the doors," DeMilt says. "Somebody hit somebody in the common area."
The melee was one of several incidents of shopper rage reported nationwide this year. As buyer-brawling and other abusive behavior mounts, the number of shell-shocked retail clerks is rising, too, and some of their employers are now offering counseling to help lower anxiety. One service, Chicago-based ComPsych Corp., says crisis sessions in which counselors travel to stores have increased 34 percent this year after a 26 percent gain last year.
Buyer rage is on the rise, retail consultants say, because of the limited supplies of popular or discounted items such as T.M.X. Elmo dolls and flat-screen televisions, inadequate store staffing, and everyday hassles.
Some sales clerks first seek help by calling ComPsych, which has 110 licensed clinicians answering several thousand calls a day on the 11th floor of its headquarters in Chicago. This time of year, retail staff are making what ComPsych counselors say are "acute calls" prompted by the overwhelming pressures of the holidays, including swearing and dangerous shoppers.
"People are frustrated and tolerance is diminished," ComPsych Chief Executive Officer Richard Chaifetz says. "Shopping is less of a leisure experience and more of a 'grab' experience. People are pushed and shoved and grabbed by the throat."
ComPsych, which counseled World Trade Center tenants after the Sept. 11 attacks, offers its services, including training in handling difficult customers, to employees at 7,000 organizations, including Fortune 500 companies. Its retail clients include Toys "R" Us Inc., Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. and Tiffany & Co.
The holiday stakes are high for retailers. About 32 percent of industry profits and 27 percent of sales come during the last quarter of the year, says the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group.
Customers are pressured by time constraints and family demands, while salespeople are working longer hours and juggling personal obligations, Chaifetz says.
"It's a reflection of the anger in our society," says George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, California. "Rather than rationally try to sort out the problem, they start screaming at the people working in the store."
Early-morning discounts promoted on key shopping days like Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and Dec. 26 are known for triggering violence. Minneapolis-based Target Corp., the second-largest U.S. discounter, doesn't offer such so-called doorbusters because it aims for what it calls a superior shopping experience, spokeswoman Cathy Wright says.
The rage also is fueled by stores' difficulties attracting and keeping employees, says Jane Hali, a retail trend expert with Coleman Research Group in New York. Those who are hired face long hours and earn modest wages.
U.S. retailers employ about 15 million people, and pay last year averaged $12.36 an hour, according to the National Retail Federation, a Washington-based trade group. The approximately 600,000 temporary employees hired during the holidays also may not know enough about the merchandise, says Paco Underhill, a New York-based consultant who studies shopper behavior.
Worker calls to closely held ComPsych peak at lunchtime on Mondays following weekend shopping. Callers' underlying issues, such as marital, financial or substance-abuse problems, may be at play, too, says Dave Pawlowski, a clinical team manager at the service.
"If they are not coping well at work, they are not coping in other ways, as well," he says.
Sometimes callers are so distraught they can't speak coherently, counselor Alison Thayer says. The clinicians use relaxation techniques, such as getting workers to breathe deeply and focus.
Counselors, who handle an average of 25 to 30 calls a day, protect the confidentiality of callers, although they can inform the authorities if they believe an employee poses a danger to himself or anyone else.
They also refer callers to local therapists for help with stress, anxiety or depression, Pawlowski says. Some ask for help with anger management, which typically involves three to five sessions.
"They have a tendency to lash out at a co-worker or lose patience with a customer," Pawlowski says.