After a scene described by several as a "near riot" during last year's Thanksgiving night special sales at Wal-Mart, the Watchung Borough Council has passed an ordinance closing all stores in town from 10 p.m. to midnight Thanksgiving night.
The ordinance passed, despite objections from Wal-Mart attorney Tracy Siebold, who said the ordinance had "legal deficiencies," such as requiring businesses, including convenience stores and gas stations, to close as written.
"We would pray upon the council to delay this ordinance," Siebold said.
Wal-Mart store manager Chris Igoe also outlined changes in the way the store planned to handle crowds during the special Black Friday sales this year that he said were designed to avoid the kinds of crowd problems seen at many Wal-Marts last year. Wal-Marts have received a black eye for Black Friday violent incidents, including a stampede that killed one employee in 2008 on Long Island.
"We don't know crowd management, so we hired someone who does," Igoe said.
The changes include having roped off areas for customers to line up and receive tickets for the special sale items, which would be monitored by employees. He said the company has purchased larger quantities of the items expected to be most popular, and will be offering a guaranteed delivery date for some items if the in-store inventory runs out.
But the changes weren't enough to overcome the concerns raised by Chief of Police Timothy Wenzel, who said the store and police worked to form a plan two years ago that proved "the best it could be," but he said that cooperation hasn't been forthcoming from the store in recent years.
Wal-Mart objected to the hours to close also, since the company has its best sales planned for 10 p.m.
"The time was picked for a reason—because most of the stores open at midnight and we felt it was best to have them open at the same time," Wenzel said.
Council members said the plans don't fully address their concerns for the safety of shoppers and noted that police had reached out to Wal-Mart representatives earlier in the year to develop a plan for the Black Friday sales, but the company didn't respond until several weeks ago.
Council President Deb Joren also noted the Black Friday sales require fire department and Rescue Squad members to stand by in case of injuries or other problems.
"These are volunteers—they're not paid and they're being brought out to serve on Thanksgiving night," she said. "I just feel you haven't given us the assurances we need."
Siebold asked the council to allow her time to meet with Borough Attorney Albert Cruz to find an acceptable solution, but the council voted unanimously to approve the ordinance.