What Retail Might Look Like At The End of the World As We Know It, by Jacob

In most TEOTWAWKI scenarios, one of the first things to fall is the “kanban” retail system used by big box retailers, such as my place of employment. While I think that there is some truth to this notion, there are a few important things about “big box” store policies and customer trends that are important to know in the event that it all hits the fan. My background is in communications, and I have worked on and off in various positions that involve “crisis management” since high school. Most recently I have worked as a manager in retail at a store in an impoverished metropolitan region. I personally want to be getting out of Dodge when it all goes down and do not recommend being in a retail environment if it happens, but the following are a few observations during my time in retail that may help give some insight into what a retail store might look like during a collapse.

  1. The first and most important thing to remember is that actual disasters do not deter customer traffic. In fact, they tend to draw spectators. Black Friday, which was my first day on the job as a manager, is a prime example of this tendency. People with no intention of shopping will still show up to watch the chaos and further clog customer traffic lanes and push us closer and closer to store capacity. We literally spend months planning for Black Friday, which is known as “The Event”, every year. However, in the event of TEOTWAWKI, we probably will not have such protocols in place despite having the traffic. Grocery, sporting goods, pharmacy, and clothing are going to be busy places. I suspect that less traffic will be present in the hardware, lawn and garden, and automotive sections while people are still somewhat civilized and actually paying for their merchandise. Obviously, this depends on the circumstances and nature of the disaster.
  2. During the past few months we have had a string of bomb threats at my store that have resulted in evacuation and temporary closure of the facility. In every situation, we had strings of vehicles driving to the front doors between police cars and fire trucks to ask the managers on duty if we really were closed. Personally, if I saw police cars and fire trucks with lights flashing and police line up, I don’t think that that’s a place I would particularly want to be. The average American customer, in my experience, does not seem to think that way. When deterred at the front door and despite the nature of the crisis, we had clusters of people setting up picnic blankets a couple hundred yards away in ninety degree heat for four hours to wait for the doors to reopen. When they did open, customers were inside before anyone else.

    It would not matter if nuclear disaster were imminent. We would still have customers. While I do anticipate sporadic violence throughout the store (as I have seen in times like snow storms when it comes down to the last loaf of bread), I do not suspect mass looting to begin during a localized crisis until inventory begins to run out or is already depleted. Again, this will depend on media hype and how quickly the disaster strikes. Pandemic and long-term power outage would look very different. When looting does begin, I doubt that it will be for practical items. I predict that additional inventory will be on the way immediately, unless fuel cost and availability or physical obstacle prevents it. The distribution centers will likely disgorge their inventories in order to continue to do business, because as I said before we will take your money as long as you have it unless directed otherwise. Once the product is gone, it will not matter that more product is on the way; once the customer cannot physically see product, it no longer exists to them and that is when they panic.

  3. The next thing I have learned is that everyone waits until the last second to react to disaster. Whether dealing with snow storms, holidays, or going back to school, time and time again I have watched thousands of customers wait until mere hours before an event or even during the start of an event to come and purchase what they need in mass quantities. Even on Christmas Day (the only calendar day of the year that we are closed), we cannot get people to leave. Every year we must literally herd people to the checkouts and out the door. On some occasions, it has taken security just to close the store. This has even been true during periods of evacuation, such as bomb threats and fires.
  4. People will panic-buy anything, but they often overlook the truly important items. Junk food, alcohol, toilet paper, disposable diapers, bread, milk, and meat will be the first to go, but things like hardware, vitamins, and some automotive items (if they are in stock) will possibly be overlooked temporarily in the panic. Smart buying practices require planning and organization. Panic-buying results in predictable impulsiveness.
  5. I do not think that retailers will necessarily stop doing business until the last possible second. Obviously the nature of the incident will impact the time frame of closure, but do not underestimate the determination of retailers to do what we are in business to do. Even in the event of the American dollar losing its value, I doubt that we will stop taking them as long as we have inventory or until direction comes down from corporate. When the SNAP system crashed twice last year, we still accepted them as payment on food despite the cards not having any value. We may very well accept payment when no one else will, just because we are “supposed to”.

    My concern with this idea is that, as stated before, customers are short-sighted. In full-bore panic mode even if willing to legally purchase items, they may not believe that more inventory is on the way. As I said before, this can lead to panic and might be the catalyst for looting.

  6. As far as staffing is concerned, most of my employees are entertained by mass panic and will likely stick around to operate the store until things get completely out of hand. This is why we have so many volunteers for Black Friday every year.

    There are a few exceptions to this rule. A power-outage cripples retail. When the power goes down, we cannot operate our Point of Sale systems, and we stop accepting payment for goods. If customers knew that this was going to be long-term, it could spark panic and possibly looting very quickly. In my experience, customers tend to be very short-sighted. Most will either wait to see if it “comes back on”, if they are in the store, or they will “come back later”. Honestly, a power-outage is the scariest scenario for someone who works in retail.

    It is also important to remember the power of rumors and a mob mentality. If the news, an employee on site, or a customer somehow exaggerates the scenario, it can cause a domino effect and mass panic. This is another likely catalyst for panic and looting.

  7. I do not think that pandemic would necessitate closure immediately, unless there was federal directive to close businesses in a particular region. Even though some employees would stop attending work out of fear, there are a lot of others who would still attend regardless, due to the need for a paycheck, work ethic, or just to watch it all happen. The company would not likely close its doors to customers who want to pay for things, like medicine, unless forced to, and might even bring in a temporary work force to supplement the existing one in order to continue business. Remember what I said above: We are in business to make money, and corporate knows that people wait for the last second to spend it. They will want to be as close to that last second as possible.

    Even in the event of an occupation, I think that some stores have the potential to remain open. Many businesses in Paris stayed open during the Nazi occupation and simply expanded their customer base to include the occupiers. It would obviously depend on the demeanor of the occupying force. Hitler wanted to keep Paris as a pristine jewel to prove a point to the rest of the world. This condition could even vary city to city.

  8. Crisis response takes time. The more specialized the situation, the longer it takes to formulate a response. Complicate this with things like a power-outage and it may take even longer than usual for authorities to arrive. Management protocol usually dictates disengagement and separation until a response can be formulated. Our first priority is to protect our employees and ourselves from the threat. Customers rank lower on that hierarchy. If mass looting breaks out, we may direct employees to stand back and get to safety, and some store managers may even abandon operation of the facility entirely.

It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but these are a few things that I have learned about crisis management, protocol, and customer trends in my time in retail. I hope that you don’t need to get to a store at the eleventh hour, and I certainly intend to be getting out of Dodge myself.