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Walmart, theme parks and the culture of violence in public spaces

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Published: November 27, 2012 at 10:07 AM

I saw this video over the weekend, and it's been bugging me ever since:

The melee starts at 1:26. Yep, it's a Black Friday video, of people fighting over cheap headphones at a Walmart. You can find plenty to offend you in this video - obviously, the customers, and maybe even the guy who brought his kids along to record the scene.

But what really bothered me was… Walmart. It's bad enough when retailers don't plan for early arrivals crowding the doors when a store opens in the morning. That's not what happened in this video. Walmart set aside a display of merchandise in an already-open store and waited for a crowd to gather around before unveiling it. Predictably, the completely unmanaged crowd tore the display apart, fighting with one another over the merchandise as they did.

I've got to wonder: was this negligence - Walmart's inability to predict what would happen when they unveiled a display of underpriced items in a crowded store? Or was it deliberate - an attempt to incite a crowd, to create a buzz of excitement in its store?

Let's contrast this with another big crowd of eager consumers from earlier this year, one many readers of this site will remember.

Reopening of Disney California Adventure

The difference between how Walmart treats its customers and Disney treated its guests at the opening of Cars Land couldn't be greater. While Walmart left its customers to fight like animals over its newly-released merchandise, Disney walked its customers through the park to the newly opened Radiator Springs Racers ride, where even more Disney cast members were waiting to escort the crowd through an orderly line.

Walking to the opening of Cars Land

Whenever I opened an attraction at Walt Disney World, we were to "walk the line" down into the ride - to discourage the type of mob behavior we've seen at places like Walmart. In the days before Fastpass eliminated two queues at Big Thunder Mountain, whenever we opened the second queue we'd note which guest was passing through the turnstiles in the already-opened queue. Then we'd walk people through the empty queue, keeping pace with that guest in the other queue, so that the first party we were walking through the newly-opened queue would arrive at the load platform as the same time as that other guest we'd been watching. No one got to cut ahead. No one rushed the queue. We had to take 10 minutes of a cast member's (i.e. the company's) time to do this, but we took that extra time so that everyone would be treated fairly and the situation would remain safe, calm and orderly for all.

In other words, we treated our customers like human beings - not like a pack of angry dogs.

Of course, Disney's not perfect. I've seen plenty of cast members skimp on walking down a line, doing it for a few moments before letting the crowd rush ahead. Morning rope drops can be frightening when cast members don't try to manage the crowd. But there's a huge difference between a crowd at a rope drop dispersing into a huge theme park and a crowd in a Walmart parking lot trying to cram through narrow doorways. And there's a huge difference between companies that try to create systems to manage crowds and those which don't even bother.

One of my themes on this website is that every time you spend your money, you vote with your dollars for the type of businesses you want. That's why I go out of my way - from Singapore to Santa Claus - trying to find the very best experiences and service in the theme park business. I want to encourage you to spend your money with companies that value you, as well as your business.

Businesses that serve large crowds have a choice in how they address those customers. They can go cheap, skimp on leadership, and leave the crowd to itself, running the risk that people will descend into a culture of violence. Or they can invest in employees, provide leadership through design, and actively promote a culture of civility.

They have their choice, and you have yours. You get to decide which type of businesses we will have. You vote with your dollars. The businesses that get those dollars stay in business, and those don't - won't.

So when you're spending your money this holiday season - or anytime else - think about the ways that companies treat you and other people (customers and employees). I hope that you'll decide to take your money and your business to companies that treat people with the respect that human beings deserve.

Readers' Opinions

From Richard Faraci on November 27, 2012 at 10:12 AM
I think it's despicable what happens during black friday, but to compare it to a theme park opening is apples and oranges. Essentially, there is nothing being consumed at a theme park, there is no limited quantity of items to go around, and if there is it will be back at the same price point later on.
From 86.133.57.117 on November 27, 2012 at 10:27 AM
Very well said Robert. Yet another reason why Disney scores so highly with so many people and ironically one of the reasons they can get away with less new attraction investment than, say Universal.

Maybe this is the appropriate time to comment on something that I picked up on during my recent vacation to Orlando. Being theme park fans my wife and I obviously wanted to visit all the theme parks, not just Disney, so Universal (both Studios and Islands of Adventure) was high on the list. And yet we left both parks early...

Partly it was low season so everything was quiet and lines were short for the most part. But what really got to me was the Universal Express Pass system. We paid good money to get into the parks and yet, as is well documented, at every attraction we were made to stand back whilst an unlimited number of Universal resort guests were ushered in in front of us, irrespective of how long the lines were behind us. I love the Fast Pass system at Disney and never object to people getting onto a ride before me but that's mainly because it is administered on an equitable basis and the numbers of people able to jump the lines are limited each hour. At Universal I was made to feel like a second class citizen. I'd use a stronger word but I might get moderated! And this was low season - God only knows what it's like in the busy season. I can imagine the lines for 'ordinary' visitors barely moving at all as unlimited numbers of the privileged few get to march past and jump the line, and that stinks big time. It really soured our whole Universal experience and to my mind fits exactly with Robert's comments today about how organisations treat those people who pay good money. I knew this was how the system worked at Universal and I expected it, but I wasn't prepared for how crap it made me feel and how annoying it was. Universal may be spending money on attractions but they are now bottom of my list of places I want to visit in Orlando. Thank God for Mythos. It redeemed the day. But only just.

From David Brown on November 27, 2012 at 10:28 AM
Very well said Robert. Yet another reason why Disney scores so highly with so many people and ironically one of the reasons they can get away with less new attraction investment than, say Universal.

Maybe this is the appropriate time to comment on something that I picked up on during my recent vacation to Orlando. Being theme park fans my wife and I obviously wanted to visit all the theme parks, not just Disney, so Universal (both Studios and Islands of Adventure) was high on the list. And yet we left both parks early...

Partly it was low season so everything was quiet and lines were short for the most part. But what really got to me was the Universal Express Pass system. We paid good money to get into the parks and yet, as is well documented, at every attraction we were made to stand back whilst an unlimited number of Universal resort guests were ushered in in front of us, irrespective of how long the lines were behind us. I love the Fast Pass system at Disney and never object to people getting onto a ride before me but that's mainly because it is administered on an equitable basis and the numbers of people able to jump the lines are limited each hour. At Universal I was made to feel like a second class citizen. I'd use a stronger word but I might get moderated! And this was low season - God only knows what it's like in the busy season. I can imagine the lines for 'ordinary' visitors barely moving at all as unlimited numbers of the privileged few get to march past and jump the line, and that stinks big time. It really soured our whole Universal experience and to my mind fits exactly with Robert's comments today about how organisations treat those people who pay good money. I knew this was how the system worked at Universal and I expected it, but I wasn't prepared for how crap it made me feel and how annoying it was. Universal may be spending money on attractions but they are now bottom of my list of places I want to visit in Orlando. Thank God for Mythos. It redeemed the day. But only just.

From 72.227.91.200 on November 27, 2012 at 10:37 AM
I had a good black friday experience at walmart. they gave out a ticket for every tv they had. you still had to wait an hour or two in a line but it was respectfull and not stressful becouse we all knew thier was a tv waiting for us when the designated time hit. On the disney fast pass system. i love it the way it is but am concerned with what i heare about having to set up you rfastpass before you even leve for vacation. i dont know where and when i am going to a park. Is this really the direction of fast pass?
From 81.70.136.4 on November 27, 2012 at 10:39 AM
I just love rope drop at MK in the morning. We make sure we see the opening show and when they drop the rope a group almost always try to fastwalk to Splash Mountain. We just strolle that way and when we are there the first group is gone, we do Splash Mountain 3 or 4 times and have a great time with no waiting what so ever.

Btw I think it's amazing how Univesal is managing their customer during peak season at the Potter land at IOA.

From 174.254.157.171 on November 27, 2012 at 10:42 AM
Great food for thought for the corporations and the consumer. Our population is too large not to practice safety precautions/tandards
From 71.32.82.30 on November 27, 2012 at 10:46 AM
granted that walmart handled it badly,and the people acted worse,its almost unfair to compare Disney's customer service with anyone, I dont think I,ve ever had better customer service anywhere
From Mike Gallagher on November 27, 2012 at 10:54 AM
Only semi-related, but at a Wal-Mart in Georgia(?) two employees and a security guard followed a man who shoplifted two DVD players into the parking lot...and managed to kill the thief. Can't find a link right now, but again, not much bearing on this story.
From 67.164.202.25 on November 27, 2012 at 11:01 AM
Although I appreciate your article and love Disney. You are dealing with 2 different types of crowds and environments. The individuals who go to Black Friday at Walmart, love the hunt the arguments and the drama of the entire event. The crowds at Disney are there for rides and amusements and are expecting a certain level of service. I agree that this is a comparison of apples and oranges
From Tom Rigg on November 27, 2012 at 11:35 AM
While I agree that the very natures of a theme park rope drop and a Black Friday deal are incredibly different, I don't think it dilutes the point that Robert is trying to make.

Point 1: As a part of the darkest 8 months of my life to date, I worked night shift cleaning floors at a Walmart. I worked Black Friday opening and almost had my hand broken when a guy stepped on it trying to get to a low quality DVD player. Walmart is negligent and should be cited by OSHA. They do want people to get in a frenzy. They want the buzz and the hype of having people rampaging for $1 towles and $5 crock pots. The air or ridiculousness created by the frenzy seems to encourage the ridiculous belief that these people are in fact getting good deals, which in general they aren't. Walmart doesn't care about it's customers or it's employees safety or satisfaction.

Point 2: One of the reasons I go back to Disney and Seaworld parks so much more than Cedar Fair and Six Flags Parks is because they appear to want my business, not just my wallet. Business is not just money, but an agreement on working together for mutual benefit. Much like Walmart, Six Flags appears to only offer up the bare minimum to avoid backlash. But people like us who pry a little deeper and keep our eyes open see the disparity. Ever person who enters these parks is a walking ATM. I don't mean to overlook the committed employee or the specific parks that take special pride, but as a whole, these brands don't appreciate what we as customers want from the transaction unless it directly results in more profit.

From M. Ryan Traylor on November 27, 2012 at 11:46 AM
The "apples and oranges" comments got me thinking. The Black Friday crowds and an "Opening Day" crowd are different, but it's the management style that differs and I think that's the point Robert is trying to express.

Black Friday sales (and their stores) can implement crowd control concepts very easily. Someone mentioned ticketed products. You get in line at the store, they pass out tickets for their inventory. It's a queued system. But revealing a bin of products will just cause chaos.

I am a person who hates being around people and in crowds, yet I love theme parks. How does this work? Because the crowd at a theme park has a general common goal.

Black Friday shoppers are like drivers in Los Angeles, they have a singular goal. When you put a mass of people with singular goals in the same place, problems will occur. This is why the surface streets of Los Angeles flow so much better than the freeways.

At a theme park you will have the person who speed walks/runs to an attraction. But rarely do you see a hoard of line cutters/jumpers. You get the standard parent return from restroom with or without child. Occasionally you will get the group of teens trying to cut (mostly at those Six Flags parks), and if you're surrounded by a group of decent people, those cutters will not be able to cut.

Going back to the stores for a moment, look at Best Buy. In last couple of years their stores have implemented a one checkout line system. All the customers line up in one queue when they are ready to purchase their stuff. This feeds them to a "loading platform" of registers. Barnes & Noble are the same way. Grocery stores, Target, Walmart do not have this system. Nor should they really. They don't have the floor space and it allows Best Buy to sell those last minute items like batteries and cheap movies.

From Fred Roy on November 27, 2012 at 11:47 AM
It's sad that we live in a country where people are paid so little that the have to fight with each other for bargains. Walmart doesn't care about anything but profits. Look at the factory in Bangladesh. I have never set foot in a Walmart and never will.
From 24.73.197.194 on November 27, 2012 at 11:47 AM
"So when you're spending your money this holiday season - or anytime else - think about the ways that companies treat you and other people (customers and employees). I hope that you'll decide to take your money and your business to companies that treat people with the respect that human beings deserve."

Good commentary today. Do you think Wal-Mart really cares about you or your money? They don't have to, because millions of our fellow citizens could care less about what you or I think. I think our country has hit the tipping point where there are more immoral than moral people among our citizens. This plays out in a variety of ways. One is the constant stream of news stories over at least the past decade uncovering wrong-doing, dishonesty and criminal behavior among leaders of businesses (large and small) and government officials at all levels. At one time not too long ago, people in positions of power and authority would weigh the consequences of cheating against the possibility of being caught and punished (or shamed) and conclude it was better to be honest. No more. Now, it seems, people care only about enriching themselves; to heck with everyone else.

This value (if one can call it that) is greed, and among businesses, Wal-Mart is one of the very worst. A recent news item of a clothing factory fire in Bangladesh which killed more than a hundred people because the fire exits were locked should shock and shame American consumers, but again, most don't give a darn. For, you see, those factory workers were making clothing for Wal-Mart and Target stores. But this affects the theme park world, too. Look on the bottom of any trinket the next time you're in a Disney, Universal, Six Flags or SeaWorld park and spot the sticker that identifies where it comes from. In a word: China. For me, that's enough to leave the item on the shelf. How about you?

- Brian

From Anon Mouse on November 27, 2012 at 11:49 AM
I don't know why you made Disney the exception when Disney does all it can to increase congestion in its parks. What happens at Walmart is once a year, Disney does it 365 days a year.
From Tony Duda on November 27, 2012 at 2:14 PM
I think you have a point concerning management oversight but the unruly crowds are self-regulating. If Wal-Mart charged everyone $94 just to enter the store, 99.99% of the eventual trouble causers will not be in there.
From Aaron McMahon on November 27, 2012 at 3:24 PM
I hope the idiot store managers have to clean up that mess and not the employees that have to miss Thanksgiving dinner to be able to pay rent.
From David Ackerman on November 27, 2012 at 7:12 PM
We avoid Black Friday (and similar) sales for the same reason that we schedule our trips to theme parks when it isn't busy - we don't like big, crazy crowds.

In the parks, we get there for rope drop and then head for rides that will get crazy later in the day (like Fantasyland). We usually head for the exit around 3 when the crowds and lines get crazier. We're happy and relaxed the whole time we're there. If we wanted to be stressed, we'd go back to our former jobs where we were stressed everyday. Life is too short...

From Rob P on November 28, 2012 at 4:43 AM
This kind of behaviour is sad on every level. Shameful acts of greed.
There are people starving in some Countries who don't behave anywhere near as badly as this when food and water is made available to them.
And this is for headphones ?? They should be ashamed of themselves.
From Joseph Catlett on November 28, 2012 at 6:46 AM
All that madness just to save a few shekels?

No thanks. I'll do most of my shopping online like I've done for the last 5 years, thank you very much.

From Eric G on November 28, 2012 at 9:41 AM
Disney doesn't deal with massive crowds 365-days a year. It's a handful of days that are exceptionally crowded.

The difference between WalMart and Disney is the fact that there really isn't a limited supply of what Disney delivers. Sure an attraction can only deliver so many rides in a day, but in reality everyone there at opening will get the chance to ride whatever they are going after.

People will run if given the chance which the cast members walking the crowd prevent, but the mob mentality isn't really there since you aren't really going to be denied what you're after.

I really hope WalMart doesn't change their practices because that would deny me the entertainment of watching morons fighting over nonsense. It just makes me feel better about myself since I don't partake.

From N B on November 28, 2012 at 6:14 PM
David,

Let me get this straight... you won't go back to Universal because they made you feel bad about not having Express?

The whole idea is that you can spend less time in the parks and more time enjoying the hotel, pools, shopping, visiting the CityWalk etc... as opposed to waiting in line for rides.

From Mark Fairleigh on November 29, 2012 at 8:29 AM
It isn't apples and oranges if you break it down to it's simplest common denominator...ravenous hunger for whatever thrill you think that item or experience will provide you. So Robert is spot on in making the comparison.

I remember Universal doing the same with crowds for Harry Potter. We were all to stay behind the chaperones...and the lead made it very clear that anyone running past them would be expelled from the park. Needless to say, we were all orderly.

Btw, the lead was forceful, but respectfull in her warning, so no stun-guns were brandished.

From 98.213.96.7 on November 29, 2012 at 10:03 AM
Robert - very well said. I know of many friends/people who felt disenfranchised with the national elections earlier this month. I still feel the most worthwhile vote is the one you make with your dollar. I'm willing to be patient, save, and spend extra money to get a better quality experience at Disney. I think many take for granted the "little things" like walking guests to the attractions to keep everyone safe.
From Mark Fairleigh on November 30, 2012 at 6:50 AM
To Anonymous, really? politics? sheesh.
From Joe Schwartz on November 30, 2012 at 5:25 PM
Well put, Robert. I couldn,t agree with you more. I am not and nver have been a fan of Walmart.

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