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Back to School (Shopping) Blues

America’s children are heading back to school!  (Remember the Staples commercial with the ecstatic father dancing through the aisles and tossing school supplies into the cart, to the tune of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?” – a classic!)

Data shows that the return-to-school season is exceeded only by Christmas and the end of year holiday season for retailers.  The heavy volume of shoppers presents potential hazards for the retail industry at large, as maintaining safety becomes more challenging.  Customer behavior can be random, rushed and distracted – compounded by all the cell phone usage – all of which can create a potentially chaotic environment, and one which is ripe for premise liability cases.

When shopping, customers do not follow an established traffic pattern as they do when driving on a road.  They will randomly enter and exit aisles looking for items on their list, not knowing if they are even in the right place.  Retail aisles require a minimum clear width consistent with local codes and accepted standards, so temporary displays should not impinge upon that allotted space.  

Trip and falls can be reduced by ensuring that objects do not protrude from display kiosks that can be caught by feet or carts.  Merchandise can accumulate on the ground quickly in heavy traffic areas, so the frequency of regular store sweeps should be increased when the shopping season is at its busiest.  Stock on shelving should be checked regularly to ensure that it is orderly and not in danger of falling.  Furthermore, it should be arranged so that items can be safely reached without need for climbing.  Heavy or bulkier items should be stocked on lower shelving to provide more stability and prevent customer attempts to reach for them in elevated locations.

Slip, trip and fall accidents can happen anywhere, anytime.  When seasonal overcrowding is unavoidable, store management need to be vigilant about slippery floors (particularly on rainy days), uneven walking surfaces and torn carpeting.  In larger stores, malfunctioning elevators and escalators or loose handrails can wreak havoc. The path to and from entrance/exit doors should be unobstructed, well-lit, and free from distractions.  Power-operated doors should be checked daily following the recommendations of the maintenance contractor.

In the litigation world, it is understood that the owner of a store owes a “duty of care” to their customers, and to warn them of any hidden dangers; (this explains the reasoning behind wet floor signs over freshly mopped floors). If a customer is injured on premise, arguments will attempt to prove that the damages were caused by the violation of that duty (  Thus, it’s not only school professionals who have their work cut out for them come September.  When the yellow buses and crossing guards appear, the retail industry must prepare for the onslaught, too.

Wishing a very happy and safe new school year to all…starting with the shopping!!!   

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