A free lunch with a very high price

The New York Times reports on a sale at Wal-Mart – and an awful way to die:

One worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34, was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in the stampede that streamed over and around him. Others who had stood alongside Mr. Damour trying to hold the doors were also hurled back and run over, witnesses said.

Some workers who saw what was happening fought their way through the surge to get to Mr. Damour, but he had been fatally injured, the police said. Emergency workers tried to revive Mr. Damour, a temporary worker hired for the holiday season, at the scene, but he was pronounced dead an hour later at Franklin Hospital Medical Center in Valley Stream.

Four other people, including a 28-year-old woman who was described as eight months pregnant, were treated at the hospital for minor injuries.

Detective Lt. Michael Fleming, who is in charge of the investigation for the Nassau police, said the store lacked adequate security. He called the scene “utter chaos” and said the “crowd was out of control.” As for those who had run over the victim, criminal charges were possible, the lieutenant said. “I’ve heard other people call this an accident, but it is not,” he said. “Certainly it was a foreseeable act.”

…Ugly shopping scenes, a few involving injuries, have become commonplace during the bargain-hunting ritual known as Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. The nation’s largest retail group, the National Retail Federation, said it had never heard of a worker being killed on Black Friday.

Not in the US, that is – this horrible incident took place in New York state – but such things have happened elsewere. And there is a broader economic lesson from such tragedies, as I once explained:

The more attractive the gift, the more damage people will do to themselves, and each other, trying to get hold of it.
If that idea seems counterintuitive, it is nevertheless true, as the managers of Ikea, the furniture giant, can testify. They opened a new London store recently, offering opening night discounts of nearly 90 per cent on a limited number of leather sofas. The store closed 40 minutes later after 6,000 people tried to force their way through the doors; several had to be taken to hospital.
The press immediately blamed either the boorish stupidity of the British public or the hypnotic influence of the wily Swedes. But the ill-tempered scenes are not unique to Britain: at the grand opening of Jeddah’s Ikea last summer, two people died in the crowds queuing to get hold of $150 vouchers. Nor are these incidents the result of some quasi-religious shopping frenzy. The curse of the free lunch is at work…

The full article is here.

Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.