The moment the doors opened, they stormed the Best Buy store in true Black Friday fashion, brandishing ads and calling out for an assortment of electronics with varying degrees of knowledge about the products.
"Where is the new Samsung iPad?" a confused customer asked.
"Do you have that TV I saw advertised?" said another.
"I'm a little kid who's lost his parents," said a third.
Of course the real thing won't happen until Thursday and Friday. But when the employees at the Utica store opened their doors Sunday, they were faced down by a massive line of eager "shoppers" whipped into a frenzy by holiday deals. In reality, the employees of this store — along with the "Blue Shirts" at every Best Buy store across the nation — were role-playing in an elaborate practice run designed to prevent problems when the real Thanksgiving and Black Friday customers appear.
"This is our chance to eliminate questions before the holiday," said general manager Rob Grau. "We're going to make sure things are organized, so this (is) a great practice session."
Of the nearly 120 employees at the Utica Store off Hall Road, about half have never experienced what it's like to work on Black Friday. And at a time where it seems every major retailer is opening earlier to try to outdo the competition, Best Buy and many other retailers have decided the difference will come from customer service.
"We know it's going to be chaos, but that is not what we strive for," Geek Squad Manager Dave Medlock told the employees as they gathered before the drill. "We strive for organized chaos. We want to make sure nobody gets trampled, that we don't have any altercations."
On Sunday, Nov. 23, Rob Grau, general manager of the Utica store, and his team ran through a dry run of Thanksgiving and Black Friday to prepare for the holiday sales rush.
U.S. retailers have spent the last three weeks preparing their door-buster deals, stocking in-demand items and setting up their sales floors. With most large stores open both Thanksgiving and Black Friday, the rush and crush could be a thing of the past, says retail analyst Jeff Green, of Jeff Green Partners.
"The days of trampling are over," said Green. "I think it has to do with the Black Friday phenomenon being spread out over more days. You just don't have the crowds you did before."
Stores take precautions
Stores are taking precautions to make sure they can prevent what is preventable. That includes hiring and training more staff, boosting security inside and outside stores and arranging products in a way that makes them accessible and obvious.
"Everybody comes prepared. They know what to expect," said Jennifer Menebroker, general manager of the J.C. Penney at Fairlane Mall in Dearborn. "We really try to build the excitement early because it can be a bit daunting in your mind. We try to keep the energy high."
At the Fairlane Mall store they've hired about 60 staffers for the holiday. They get them trained before the big day. In years past, housewares has been the first spot people go followed by fine jewelry and women's boots. Knowing this, they've anticipated customer needs and arranged the store to include more of these items.
"We start the buddy program early so they can get comfortable with where everything is and with helping customers," she said. "We all sell socks and underwear, so it comes down to customer service and where people feel comfortable shopping."
At the Taylor Wal-Mart, store manager Karen Robenhurst has been training her 40 seasonal employees for a few months.
"We start two months before with small group meetings, breaking everyone up into different responsibilities," she said. "We do practice runs with role play, where they go through every kind of customer situation. It gets them prepared so they won't be anxious when everyone comes in."
Wal-Mart has also added the "1-Hour Guarantee." That means customers at the store on Thanksgiving or Black Friday seeking specific deals, such as the 50-inch LED HDTV for $218, will be guaranteed to get that product assuming they arrive within an hour of the store opening. If shoppers don't want to wait in line to get the item that day, they can get the guarantee and they can come back to pick up their item later, before Christmas.
It's a far cry from the news headlines of the past, including a 2008 incident where a Wal-Mart employee in Long Island, New York, was trampled to death on Black Friday.
The company has changed to become smarter and more focused on safety, says Robenhurst.
"We've evolved as a company to figure out what is the best strategy to get all the product on the floor and get it to the customer," she said.
Cheerful employees key
In addition to keeping customers happy, managers have the added role of keeping workers engaged and cheerful, even though they are working on a holiday.
Robenhurst says Wal-Mart will provide a Thanksgiving feast as well as other meals for the 400 workers who will be there over the holiday weekend. The company also offers employees the opportunity to do their shopping on Dec. 4, when they can receive 25 percent off everything they buy, as a way of saying thank you for working the holiday.
Cassie Tue has worked retail before, but will be doing it with Wal-Mart for the first time this year. She says she is glad for the chance to work on Thanksgiving.
"To tell you the truth, I'd rather be working," said Tue, who has been with Wal-Mart for seven months. "I couldn't do the whole shopping thing."
Menebroker says her J.C. Penney employees will be given food throughout the weekend and small gifts and prizes to take home "to show them we appreciate them being here."
Lavell Goree, who has worked at the J.C. Penney for seven months, says he is excited about working his first Thanksgiving for the retailer.
"I think it's going to be great," he said. "When we get off work we're here so we can do some shopping too."
Best Buy employee Kyle Hendley said he enjoys working the holiday season so much that even though he has a job in IT at Volkswagen, he came back to the electronics store for a seventh year.
"It's a second income for me obviously, but it's about much more than that," he said. "This is my Best Buy family, and we have so much fun."
At the Utica Best Buy, Grau took time at the end of the practice run to explain to his employees that their work is about more than sales. "We have a chance to play Santa Claus, make their dreams come true," he said. "(To) make sure their holiday is absolutely phenomenal now and moving forward."