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How can we avoid a repeat of Black Friday tragedy?

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Dec. 5, 2008, 10:47PM

This is the season to shop till you drop. But that doesn't mean you have to become the victim of a frenzied mob like the one that trampled to death a Wal-Mart employee in Valley Stream, N.Y., on Black Friday.

The National Retail Federation said it had never heard of a worker being killed on Black Friday. However, all of us, if not from personal experience, are aware that things can get a little hectic when you have a throng of shoppers at one time vying for a few sale items.

Consumer Watch sought some expert advice to avoid such incidents. And, to no great surprise, one blamed the retailers and the other pointed a finger at shoppers.

First, the short version from Terry Hemeyer, who teaches crisis management at Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management:

"I think the advice to the consumer, in my view, is that you are falling on deaf ears because they are not going to pay attention. They are going to pay attention to what the sale is — is it something they need and how they are going to get it."

Hemeyer, who also teaches marketing, public relations and advertising at the University of Texas at Austin, places the onus on retailers to prevent such accidents. He said that throughout history, consumers have been attacking each other to get sale items that are in short supply, even when people are lined up waiting for the doors to open.

Hemeyer, who made a point not to attack Wal-Mart, said if store managers don't understand the "herd mentality," then they are not doing their jobs.

"In other words," he said, "if you do something that the doors open at 8 and that's when the sales start and it's a limited supply, I think that's a formula for a problem because everybody has to be there at the same time."

He suggests that retailers take the approach of mailing discount coupons that are not limited to certain products on sale at a specific time.

"It's just a matter of, will you get there before they are gone," he said.

Meanwhile, Julia Hampton, CEO of New York-based Nu-U Image Consulting, dismissed police claims that the lack of store security led to the mob situation in New York, where four other people were injured Nov. 28. She said shoppers' behavior created the situation.

Hampton, who provides consulting on gift buying, offers some shopping etiquette, especially during the busy Christmas shopping season:

Go in the middle of the day instead of the weekend or after work to avoid the craziness.
•Keep in mind who you are shopping for and have an idea of what gift to purchase for each person.
•Stay away if there is a big crowd attracted by a sale. "There are sales everywhere on everything," she said. "If you can't get into Wal-Mart, then go somewhere else."
•Wear comfortable clothes and shoes, which are the "key to not stressing you out."
•Don't react to rude customers who are pushing in line or are trying to grab something off the shelf before you. "Just let it go and say, 'You know what, I can find something else.' "
•Also, shop online to avoid the crowds.
"I think, basically, it all comes down to preparation — just planning ahead before you make that step out for your holiday shopping," she said.

Good news for teachers

Speaking of shopping, the Internal Revenue Service has a bit of good news for teachers who use their own money for school supplies and don't get reimbursed by their employer.

The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 reinstated the educator expense deduction, which had expired at the end of last year. The deduction applies to tax years 2008 and 2009.

Teachers, the IRS advises, must keep receipts for purchases of books and other classroom supplies. They will be able to deduct up to $250 for such expenses.

The deduction is available to educators in public or private elementary or secondary schools. To be eligible, a person must work at least 900 hours during a school year as a teacher, instructor, counselor, principal or aide.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, wasn't too impressed, citing that $250 is only a fraction of the out-of-pocket money teachers spend.

"They have done some studies that they feel the teachers spend on average better than $1,000 a year out of their own pocket," Fallon said. "But anything they can recover is good."