Aggressive advertising of great deals combined with a worrying economy may be to blame for a spate of violence in North American shopping malls over the holidays.
On Boxing Day in Winnipeg, a man forced hundreds to flee when he used a can of pepper spray in front of a Sears store; across the border, shoppers threw punches and food-court chairs during a melee at the Mall of America in Minnesota.
These incidents come on the heels of multiple brawls in the United States last week when Nike re-released the model of basketball shoes worn by Michael Jordan. In November, a Los Angeles woman used pepper spray to fight her way through a crowd vying to buy an Xbox.
"People get into this mindset that something must be had [and]they pull out all the stops to get it," said New York psychologist Jeff Gardere. "The cherry on top is the economy."
Dr. Gardere points to several techniques stores use to create competition among customers, including advertising limited-quantity merchandise and using scents designed to trigger shoppers' desire. In a mob, people enjoy a certain amount of anonymity and feel they can get away with breaking the law. But he argues extreme measures – such as packing pepper spray when going bargain-hunting – probably speak to deeper psychological problems.
Police don't know what motivated the Winnipeg attack. It happened mid-afternoon Monday at Polo Park, the city's largest shopping centre. Two men were arguing in a public area near a Sears, an Apple store and various smaller shops, when one pulled out pepper spray and doused the other.
Mall staff gave oxygen to one asthmatic bystander and three people went to hospital as a precaution. Local police had not made any arrests Tuesday.
"We've had pepper spray used in places where there are people around, be it in schools or on a street. What makes this unusual is that it happened on Boxing Day in a very crowded mall," said Constable Rob Carver.
Retailers could take some comfort in the fact no one was seriously injured – and the violence didn't seem to hurt business much. The Mall of America remained open after police swept through to break up fights. In Winnipeg, everything was back to normal by the next day.
"If it put a damper on things, you certainly wouldn't know it. Our mall is as busy now as it was yesterday," said general manager Deborah Green. "I don't think it was a big event for most shoppers."