Dress rehearsals prepare retail store employees for holiday shopping chaos

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- To the casual observer, the scene Saturday morning at the Best Buy store in Eden Prairie looked eerily similar to the consumer chaos of "Black Friday."...

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- To the casual observer, the scene Saturday morning at the Best Buy store in Eden Prairie looked eerily similar to the consumer chaos of "Black Friday."

The television department was so jam-packed with bodies that one had to twist sideways to make it through the aisles. Somewhere in the store, a young man screamed, "I want my PlayStation 3!" One store employee was so overwhelmed with customers that she mistakenly told one of them to come back later, even though the item being sought was on the shelf.

But apart from the store itself, the entire scene was make-believe. The people who appeared to be shoppers were really Best Buy employees pretending to be shoppers. What seemed like an authentic display of shopping fervor really was an elaborate act -- designed to prepare employees for the mayhem of Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Later, the entire performance will be broken down and analyzed, and then repeated.

The elaborate three-hour rehearsal underscored just how important the day after Thanksgiving has become for retailers generally, and consumer electronics stores in particular. Last year, according to the National Retail Federation, shoppers spent $23 billion on the Black Friday weekend, and more than $400 billion during the holiday season.

Consumer electronics retailers rank among the most popular destinations on Black Friday, as consumers look for deep discounts on high-definition televisions, laptop computers, MP3 players and other items.


A recent poll by Consumer Reports found that 19 percent of Americans plan to purchase a flat-panel TV around the holidays.

Nearly half of these consumers plan on buying TVs with screens that are 42 inches or larger, with an average expenditure of $1,600, according to Consumer Reports.

For Best Buy Co. Inc., the world's largest electronics chain, the holidays are especially important. Fourth-quarter sales during the past fiscal year accounted for 35 percent of the retailer's $30.85 billion in annual sales. More than half of Best Buy's net profit last year came in the fourth quarter. Of the $1.14 billion that Best Buy made for the year, $644 million came in the final quarter, which includes the holiday selling season.

But beyond numbers, the rehearsals also are a window into the growing clout of consumers. While the customers have long been right, they are increasingly pampered by retailers, who are well aware that one bad experience could mean a lost customer for life.

Given the large dollar amounts at stake, retailers know they have to prepare for every possible scenario. "We have to control everything that we can control," Best Buy spokesman Brian Lucas said. "It doesn't do a whole lot of good to have a ton of traffic on Black Friday, but with people so frustrated by their experience that they don't want to come back."

Department stores have rehearsed holiday sales and big events for decades, but Best Buy takes the exercise a step further. Each year since 2000, the retailer has asked all of its stores to hold mock Black Friday events in the weeks leading up to the day itself. This year, more than 100,000 employees at 811 Best Buy stores nationwide participated in Black Friday rehearsals.

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