How Walmart gets ready for Thanksgiving and Black Friday shopping

TAMPA — Something huge is happening Thanksgiving Day at the Walmart Supercenter on Gandy Boulevard, and we're not talking about great deals on TVs.

All 26 checkout lanes will be open from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., perhaps a bit longer.

Holiday miracle? Not really. It's the one time all year Walmart lights up every register.

Aaron Powell, manager of the store at 4302 W Gandy Blvd., said Walmart designs the number of checkout lanes to meet Black Friday shopping volume but never fully staffs them the other 364 days. That would explain why on a Saturday afternoon we stand 20 people deep for five registers, wondering why for the love of retail they don't add cashiers.

Powell said his store might get close to maximum checkout strength on Black Friday and weekends leading up to Christmas, but if you want to see every register open, you'll have to join the crowds on Thanksgiving night.

The nation's biggest retailer has been gearing up for Thanksgiving and Black Friday since August. That's when store managers and corporate execs from around the country met in Orlando to drum up holiday spirit, plot the rest of the year and play with the season's hottest toys, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

This year, Walmart released its Black Friday plans earlier than ever, more than two weeks before Thanksgiving. Powell said customers got the ads online the same time as he did, which was good for everyone. In the past, shoppers would ask employees for hints about deals before they were released.

When Walmart says it won't be beat on price, it's not kidding. As part of his holiday checklist from corporate, Powell went to the Sweetbay across the street and other nearby grocery stores to get their prices on turkeys, Stove Top stuffing, green beans and other Thanksgiving mainstays. Prices were forwarded to the suits in Bentonville, Ark., who decide whether to match a lower price. Yes, Walmart will change stickers over a few pennies.

Stores started hiring in October and early November. Powell's store hired about 45, including 25 permanent workers who will stay on past January. Many of the seasonal ones work the overnight shift or as cashiers.

Powell wanted to get his entire staff of 200 up to speed well before the shopping season started because most hadn't worked a Thanksgiving or Black Friday. The normally high turnover, which is standard in the retail industry, was even higher this year because many people who came to Walmart after losing jobs found new employment, he said.

Job candidates were told up front during interviews that everyone works on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. It wasn't some asterisk at the bottom of the employment application. "Everyone knows about it ahead of time,'' Powell said. "It's out there.''

Walmart has a slight advantage in that its stores are always open 24 hours, except for Christmas. It's not like department stores and other national chains that keep moving up their Black Friday hours, upsetting workers accustomed to having Thanksgiving off. Walmart, for better or worse, makes it easy. Don't want to work the holiday? Then don't apply.

Except for managers, most hourly store associates will work an eight-hour shift Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Permanent employees will get their regular hourly pay plus holiday pay, which is based on the number of hours in their average shift. Temporary employees will get only their regular pay. Everyone will get a free meal during their shift and 25 percent off an entire purchase during the holiday season.

Shoppers can expect crowds at Walmart to peak late afternoon on Thanksgiving in advance of holiday deals starting at 6 p.m. Stores are offering "one-hour guarantees'' on 21 popular items for anyone in line during the designated hours. Crowds will likely thin out a bit by late morning Friday.

A 32-inch LED high-definition TV for $98 might be worth it, especially when all the registers are open.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.

How Walmart gets ready for Thanksgiving and Black Friday shopping 11/19/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 9:06pm]

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