- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

NEW YORK - ‘Tis the season to be angry?

The countdown to Christmas has dwindled to the single digits: As the mall crowds have worsened, so has the stress on shoppers faced with a looming deadline to buy gifts and they are increasingly taking that stress out on salespeople.

Now merchants from toy sellers to electronics chains have buckled down to deal with irate shoppers. Their strategies vary, but the goal is generally the same: to keep customers happy and from wrestling each other in the aisles and employees safe.

“We’ve all done it: I know I’ve lost my temper, and everyone else has probably done it,” said Ernest Speranza, chief marketing officer of KB Toys.

“At this time of year, people start out with all the best intentions. They’re busy buying toys for a young child. They’re happy about doing that. Then they get caught up in the frenzy and a nice experience now starts to spiral out of control.”

With shoppers procrastinating even more this year than last year, according to reports, retailers are bracing for an even bigger rush this weekend and doing what they can to manage the mad multitudes. Stores have beefed up security and coached their employees in anger management. They are taking the hottest items off the shelves to avoid fights in the aisles. While retailers are reluctant to say how much they are spending to manage the mayhem, they do say the measures are worth it to keep their customers happy, employees sane and stores safe during the busiest time of the year.

Shoppers have become angrier, suggests a recent study by ComPsych Corp., a provider of employee assistance programs. This year, ComPsych has seen a marked increase in the number of acute-stress counseling sessions it provides to retailers related to customer abuse. The number rose 13 percent in 2006 after a 65 percent jump last year.

“During the holiday season, bring on people who are less familiar with where products are, how stores operate,” said Richard A. Chaifetz, chairman and chief executive officer of ComPsych. “Shoppers are agitated. Put those together, and you create a combustible environment.”

People are “pushy and rude,” said 18-year-old Cheryl Warshauer while shopping in New York. “I try not to be. But they’re all so pushy, you have to be pushy back.”

This season, fewer retail workers will bear the increased aggression. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people employed in the retail sector slipped in November compared with the same month last year. Meanwhile, workers employed by general merchandise stores have dropped to the lowest number since 2002.

To diffuse an incendiary situation before it sparks, KB Toys’ Mr. Speranza said the chain has stopped putting the year’s most desired toys on the shelves altogether. Fisher-Price’s T.M.X. Elmo one of this season’s most fought-over items didn’t make it onto shelves until just this week, he said. Instead, KB Toys created a waiting list and called customers one by one as shipments arrived.

Meanwhile, Toys “R” Us Inc. said it puts hot products on display but tries to be sure supply meets demand, said Ron Boire, president of Toys “R” Us in the United States. Still, there have been periodic shortages of T.M.X. Elmo, Nintendo’s new Wii gaming console and Sony’s PlayStation 3, he said.

Electronics retailer Best Buy Co. prepares its employees for the holiday rush with preseason rehearsals.

Customers who normally come to browse or toy with Best Buy’s interactive displays, “during the holidays, they come with a purpose,” said Ryan Seymour, general manager of a Best Buy store in Alexandria. “They’re aggressive.”

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