Su Patel works for Sainsbury's, as well as for shopworkers' Union Usdaw. Here, she describes the ordeal she suffered last year as a cashier in the Richmond store.
I usually work in HR for Sainsbury's but occasionally I volunteer to help out as a cashier to cover the busy periods. I agreed to help out on Black Friday last year; suffice to say, it wasn't the smartest decision I've ever made.
It was already chaos when I arrived at the store in Richmond at 8am for the start of my shift. Queues had been forming from 6am and there was no structure; people were just pushing and shoving. The nightshift staff had been scared to go out because people were knocking on the windows, trying to find out what was going on, and whether they could come in.
As we prepared to open, people were having a go at one another because someone thought someone else had pushed in. Watching from the inside, we thought it was funny. But the laughing stopped when we let them in.
People homed in for the discount aisles, they knew exactly where they wanted to go – straight for the bargains. People were just grabbing things and fighting over them.
And they were rude – they didn't want to queue and their attitude was "why don't you put the till quicker so I can get out of here".
I would say most of the people were 35 to 55 years old. That really surprised us; we were expecting the youngsters, the 21 to 30 year olds. But the ones we saw in Richmond were very affluent. They were driving BMWs and Mercedes, and carrying designer handbags. In fact the affluent people seemed to be the worst ones.
The worst thing I saw during my shift concerned one young lad who worked for us who had learning disabilities. He likes talking to customers but on this occasion, a customer slapped him across the forehead. They just leant over the belt and slapped him, telling him he was stupid and should have been at home. We were lucky – our store manager got the police involved, the customer was taken away. The young lad was shaken up, though, understandably. We had to send him home.
Some of the abuse was terrible, as the bargains started going and people became more frantic. People were shouting, screaming, in your face. I was told to go home because apparently I was a foreigner and shouldn't be working here. The lad with learning disabilities was called thick and stupid, and told he should have been in a home. The female colleagues were abused simply because they were female. It was disgusting.
Thankfully, my shift lasted only six hours. But some staff worked from six at night to seven in the morning, even though there was no overtime, or extra wage. They were promised time in lieu but it later transpired that this time was going to be held back until February or March.
Naturally those people who volunteered to work longer shifts were very disappointed; none of them are willing to do it again this year, I can tell you.
To be honest, that six hours felt like six years. At the end of the shift at 2pm, I felt like I needed a holiday. I didn't cry but I felt depressed and I know that for a lot of my colleagues, it was the worst thing ever. We had a couple of people who went off for their lunch break and just slumped into their chairs, all the colour drained from their faces.
We hadn't seen anything like it; we'd never done Black Friday before, it was new, freshly imported from America. At Christmas you're prepared for it, but this was a shock. It was a like a warzone.
After my cashier shift at Richmond I went round some other stores, on behalf of Usdaw. I work across a few different brands – I cover Asda and Tesco, as well as Sainsbury's – and I must have been to five different stores that afternoon. The story was always the same; I had reps from Tesco and Asda reporting free-for-alls, and complaining that some managers were not supportive, solely focused on getting items off the shelves.
I went to Asda in Roehampton, which was particularly bad because it's near a council estate and a lot of youngsters turned up. People were pushing and shoving all over the place. Then I went to Tesco and two customers had got into a fight, the police had been called to break it up. At another store someone had walked out with a few big items and the security were scared to stop them. It was bedlam.
In all honestly, we weren't prepared. It was our first Black Friday, no one knew how much interest it would generate. But tomorrow it will be different. They have put in extra precautions to man how many people are coming in at any one time – it's almost going to be a one in, one out, system, like you get in a club. We've got extra security in, every manager has gone through what we expect, and our local community police are going to be on hand as well.
Thankfully, I won't be part of it – I'm taking the day off. I had to book that about a year ago, in January. Any later and I probably wouldn't have got it. My husband works for the same place and he's done it as well. But I've spoken to colleagues and they're not looking forward to it, they'll just do their shift and go home. They ask me why we do Black Friday; the workers don't see it as a benefit for them, they don't get anything extra out of it.
If I had the chance, I would abolish Black Friday. In a heartbeat. Unfortunately I don't have that power but, in the hope that things will be slightly less manic this year, I would like to put a simple message out there to people heading down the shops tomorrow.
We don't mind you coming down but just treat us with respect. We want everyone to have fun but remember - we're just doing our job.
Usdaw is running a Freedom from Fear campaign, striving to protect shopworkers from abuse at the hands of customers. Click here for more info.