Shoppers find sales worth fighting for


The official start to the holiday shopping season kicked off with something less than cheer and good will yesterday morning when an Orlando, Fla., man was wrestled to the ground by security guards at a Wal-Mart store after he tried to cut into a line of people waiting for discount laptops.

Such spirited scuffles have become a predictable, if perverse, part of the season - as traditional as fruitcake and eggnog. The shopping skirmishes can be traced back at least a generation, when the desire for an adorably homely Cabbage Patch Kid doll outweighed the desire to follow the Golden Rule. Even embarrassment spurred by media reports about the combatants hasn't been enough to deter the fights over toys and parking spaces.

Call it a seasonal psychosis.

"The holidays bring people together; it's supposed to be a joyous occasion," said Lars Perner, a former instructor at the University of Maryland who now teaches marketing at San Diego State University. "But for many, it's actually a very stressful time. A lot of raw emotion comes out. That can be a problem in crowded stores, when people stand in your way."

Perner, who wrote his dissertation on shoppers in 1998, said several factors contribute to the frenetic behavior, including a short supply of must-have items, like those moon-faced dolls of years ago. It's gotten worse as holiday sales have grown, the marketing among national retailers has become more fierce and bargain shopping has taken on the air of sport.

"It becomes a very competitive event, particularly [on Black Friday] you know, when you've got a number of major sales starting at 5 a.m. ... and people who've been fairly charged up showing up," Perner said. "It's quite a competition going on."

He remembers a time in the 1980s when Kmart decided to stop discounting ironing boards, because shoppers were using them as battering rams to help force their way through the aisles.

Perhaps because of its widespread presence, Wal-Mart shows up again and again in media reports and on police blotters as the "it" location for gift-inspired grappling.

Here's a look back at two decades of buyers behaving badly, as chronicled in various media reports:

December 2004 - Two women and a teenage girl are arrested after they get into a fight over a parking space near a Toys "R" Us in West Hartford, Conn. One woman threw an orange peel at the other woman's car.

December 2002 - A 41-year-old man is arrested after stealing another motorist's parking space, yelling at the driver and eventually spraying him with Mace at a mall in Connecticut.

November 2002 - Shoppers stampede a Riverside, Calif., Wal-Mart store, running over a 35-year-old woman and fracturing her foot and hip.

November 1998 - Frantic "Furby" shoppers bite one woman and knock another down at a Wal-Mart in O'Fallon, Ill.

December 1996 - A Wal-Mart employee in New Brunswick, Canada, is sent to the hospital after a crowd of 300 "Tickle Me Elmo" shoppers tramples him.

December 1993 - Drivers abandon their cars in the streets outside a Toronto shopping center, eager to get to the day-after-Christmas sales. A police officer said he ran out of $20 parking-ticket slips ticketing the vehicles.

December 1992 - A 24-year-old clerk at a Toronto Sport Shoppe in Canada is kicked, punched and bitten by a group trying to grab products from shelves. Four people were arrested, and the clerk was sent to the hospital.

November 1983 - A 75-year-old man is knocked down by shoppers trying to get to Cabbage Patch dolls at a Jefferson Ward store in North Miami Beach, Fla. That same month, shoppers in Washington, D.C., offer bribes to store clerks for access to the dolls.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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