Get a sneak peek behind the scenes of a Black Friday store opening preparations

Best Buy at Fresno's River Park rehearses for Black Friday crush

Best Buy at River Park employees and managers do a run-through rehearsal for the Black Friday crush that awaits them on Thanksgiving evening and throughout the holiday weekend.
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Best Buy at River Park employees and managers do a run-through rehearsal for the Black Friday crush that awaits them on Thanksgiving evening and throughout the holiday weekend.

Later this week, thousands of restless shoppers will await the moment they can burst through a retailer’s doors and hunt down a Black Friday deal.

While most of us are familiar with the frenzied shopping ritual, it’s electric behind the scenes, too, with an army of employees bracing for the biggest rush of customers they will see all year.

Planning for that moment started months ago, with the hiring of seasonal employees and updating a game plan that will keep shoppers safe and lines moving.

Big-box retailers typically don’t share many details about their internal plans for handling the crush of people during Thanksgiving Day or Black Friday openings. But the River Park Best Buy invited The Fresno Bee to get a sneak peek at what happens behind closed doors at its Black Friday prep meeting and dress rehearsal.

137.4 millionAmericans who plan to shop Thanksgiving weekend, according to a National Retail Federation survey

All of Best Buy’s 145 employees – including 42 seasonal employees on the job since October – rolled into the store at 7 a.m. Saturday. They were practicing for the 5 p.m. opening on Thanksgiving Day.

This will be the 20th Black Friday for stocker Marlee Rippee, who has worked at the River Park Best Buy since it opened.

“Actually, it’s kind of exciting,” she said. “It’s crazy, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.”

Every employee is on duty for the Thursday opening, with some sent home well before the 1 a.m. closure time so they can be fresh the next day, the actual Black Friday, when the store reopens at 8 a.m.

It is ‘go, go go.’ You’re sweating and burning a lot of calories that day.

Mat Nickels, Best Buy

Many Americans have lobbied stores to stay closed on Thanksgiving, saying employees should be allowed to spend their Thanksgiving with their families. A few stores stay closed on Thanksgiving or even Black Friday – most notably REI – but working on Thanksgiving is a given for many people in the retail world.

In past years Black Friday openings have gotten earlier and earlier, creeping into Thanksgiving. That trend has stalled this year with most big-box stores opening at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. (One exception is JCPenney, which is once again opening at 3 p.m.)

Those who have to work often have their family Thanksgiving meals earlier in the day or week before heading to work. Rippee’s family has its Thanksgiving at noon, and she will head to work afterward for several busy shifts throughout the weekend.

Best Buy pays employees who work on Thanksgiving time and a half.

“You do get tired,” says Rippee, who typically works eight-hour shifts.

Best Buy will have subs, pizza and snacks like Hot Pockets available for workers Thursday through Saturday. The meals are necessary because leaving the River Park parking lot to get lunch or even running next door to Target would take longer than an employee’s lunch break during this busy time.

“We’re going to supply you with lots of drinks to keep you guys full of sugar and energy,” general manager Mat Nickels told the staff Saturday.

Designated “breakers” will tap employees on the shoulder to relieve them for scheduled breaks and lunches, which each employee has listed on the lanyard they wear around their neck.

And a tech will work through the night Wednesday setting up extra cash registers.

$935.58The average amount shoppers will spend throughout the holiday shopping season

At the dress rehearsal, workers pretended to be customers, surging through the doors so employees could practice handling the onslaught of customers.

Black Friday has evolved since the years when midnight openings were the norm. Retailers have made safety and organization a priority, not wanting a repeat of 2008, when a Walmart worker was trampled to death on Black Friday in Long Island, N.Y.

At Best Buy, shoppers usually start lining up Wednesday afternoon or evening, with security guards and portable restrooms nearby. Metal barricades ensure there are no last-minute line cutters.

To avoid having customers run through the store, workers will hand out colored tickets long before the store opens for the most popular “doorbuster” deals that are in limited supply. They include the 55-inch LED Samsung TV for $320 less than it normally costs.

Customers wanting a cellphone, for example, will get a blue ticket. They will follow blue tape on the floor that leads them to the mobile department marked with blue balloons, exchanging their ticket for the item they want to buy.

“Safety is the No. 1 concern,” Nickels, the manager, says. “We take that stuff very seriously.”

Best Buy has its own security guards and hires Fresno police officers to patrol inside and outside the store, with Best Buy footing the bill. Ambulances are in the parking lot just in case. And security inside the store monitors the crowd from cameras and atop ladders for congested areas that might need more attention.

If things get out of control or someone falls ill, employees know to flag officers or department leaders who have had crisis management training.

New this year is the extra organization – traffic cones, lighting, etc. – behind the store where shoppers can pick up TVs they just bought.

Best Buy is one of Fresno’s busiest stores on Thanksgiving. But over the last few years some of the hysteria has naturally leaked out of the day as stores switched from midnight openings to a range of different times that thinned out the crowd. For example, Fashion Fair and Target open at 6 p.m. and JCPenney opens at 3 p.m.

More deals offered online before Black Friday weekend also have had an effect on crowds as retailers compete to get shoppers’ money earlier and earlier.

Still, Best Buy will handle thousands of customers throughout the day. Extra employees will be at the front of the store directing customers. Others will tend to the line for the registers, redirecting it as things get busy.

“It’s all about that first 10, 15 minutes,” Nickels says. “Once you’ve got that rhythm established, it’s easier from there on out.”

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough

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