This won't be much of a Black Friday preview considering how many retailers and their customers already have a jump on the traditional launch of the shopping season this year.
In 2020 it was Amazon that helped push up the holiday start, with an October Prime Day that had been delayed by the pandemic. Yet this year is shaping up much the same way.
"The absence of Prime Day this year, which moved back to being a mid-year event, muted the year-over-year noise about the start of promotion season," Brendan Witcher, Forrester Research principal analyst of digital business strategy, said by email. "But as we expected, retailers launched the promotional calendar early again this year."
The good news is that, despite ongoing concerns about inflation and the pandemic, shoppers appear to be ready to celebrate — and spend. Halloween served as a harbinger of things to come, as consumers remained cautious but, unlike last year, gathered together and bought more.
Starting early and lasting longer means the event itself, on its traditional days, is waning somewhat. For example, Adobe expects Cyber Week (Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday) to drive $36 billion in online spending. That's 17% of the holiday season, but just 5% growth from last year compared to the forecast for 10% growth in holiday spending overall, Adobe said.
Halloween also served as a gateway to the holidays, as retailers swiftly replaced orange and black with red and green. The competition plus worries about adequate inventory have propelled Walmart, Target, Kohl's, Saks, Neiman Marcus and others to start their campaigns.
"It's no exaggeration that pumpkins came down Oct. 31, and tree lighting ceremonies were held Nov. 1," Meghann Martindale, head of retail research at Madison Marquette, said by phone. "I do think that the spirit of Black Friday has not changed. It's alive and well, consumers want to do what Black Friday is associated with — the deals and the kickoff to the holiday season. But there's no doubt that it's starting earlier and earlier."
Here's what we know so far.
Shoppers are out early
With retailers starting their holiday messages and supply chain snafus continuing to make headlines, consumers have responded. A great majority (83%) told RetailMeNot that they would start before Thanksgiving, with 19% saying that started in August or even earlier, 18% said September, 22% October, and 24% in November before Thanksgiving Day. Pinterest found that holiday-related searches were 43 times greater in August compared to last year.
Concerns about product availability are getting shoppers going early, according to Coresight Research, which found that just 9.6% of U.S. holiday shoppers plan to start on Black Friday, with 70.4% saying they'll have already started by then.
Amazon's late Prime Day last year is often cited as the catalyst to the early Black Friday launch, but the phenomenon emerged earlier than that.
"We had started to see that sort of elongation of Black Friday pre-pandemic, going back to like 2016, '17, '18, where the deals are starting earlier and were lasting through Cyber Monday and then cyber week to be competitive with online," Martindale said, noting, however, that there will always be stragglers. "No matter how early people started to shop, there's always going to be those last-minute shoppers and those procrastinators. Maybe there's less sales in December this year overall because people shopped early, but as a retailer, you still have to make that push all the way up basically to Christmas Eve."
Shoppers are online
Last year's e-commerce big swell subsided somewhat in 2021, thanks mostly to the widespread availability of vaccinations since early in the year. Coresight found that a higher proportion of U.S. consumers expect to shop in-store this year on Black Friday compared to last year, but that the percentge of those planning to shop online is more than double that of in-store shoppers.
The holidays are a hectic time, and online shopping has always been a convenient way to check things off the list. Plus concerns around COVID are lingering, so digital sales are surging again. Adobe anticipates that Cyber Monday will yield $11.3 billion (up 4% from last year) and remain the biggest day of the season (and year), with Black Friday coming in at $9.5 billion (up 5%) and Thanksgiving at $5.4 billion (up 6%).
Consumers spent $72.4 billion online in October alone, up 8% from last year, according to another Adobe report. They're snapping up toys (sales up 50% compared to September's average), groceries (up 34%), video games (up 20%), and gift cards (up 20%). From January through October, e-commerce sales rose 9% from last year and 57% from 2019 to $680 billion, according to Adobe's research.
Most Black Friday shoppers (70%) will be primarily shopping online, according to a survey from digital experience analytics firm Glassbox, making mobile and web performance especially important. That also will mean that flexible fulfillment options, something that gave retailers with physical stores an edge last year, remains important. In October, curbside pickup was used for 18.4% of all online orders at retailers offering it, on par with October 2020 and up 6% compared to October 2019, Adobe said.
The pandemic is still a problem
Last year's lockdown hasn't been repeated this year, but the pandemic continues to affect consumer behavior. The delta variant of the virus earlier this year introduced fresh uncertainties about the trajectory of the disease outbreak, as public health officials and policy makers scramble to improve vaccination rates.
The flip side is that vaccinations are making people more comfortable about shopping in stores and more optimistic about the economy, two things that could help drive sales. For example, following the CDC announcement that children ages five to 11 could begin COVID immunizations, consumer sentiment rose two percentage points to 55.4%, according to the latest Forbes Advisor-Ipsos Consumer Confidence Weekly Tracker. More Americans (58%) expect the post-pandemic economic recovery will be quick, per that research.
Still, the pandemic continues to impact the supply chain and consumer concerns, Coresight said. The situation means that some are staying put and careful about their spending. A quarter of people in the U.S. surveyed by WalletHub said they will forego holiday gifts because of COVID-19, while one-fifth still have credit card debt from last year. Financial contraints are influencing a little over a quarter and COVID exposure worries are influencing 19% of people making holiday shopping plans, according to customer experience platform Medallia.
What's the deal?
Despite the early push, discounts haven't been all that deep, according to Adobe's research. Discounts on electronics are at 8.7%, down from 13.2% at the same time last year, and sporting goods at 2.8%, down from 11.2%, while tools and home improvement items aren't being discounted at all, per that report.
Around two-thirds of U.S. businesses are offering Black Friday promotions this year, down 17% from last year, according to research from Sitecore. Some promotions are on par with last year, as on televisions and furniture, while toys are being more heavily discounted at 15.9% compared to 7.5% last year and computers are being discounted at 12.4% compared to 11.9% last year, Adobe found.
Consumers are taking the time to hunt for any price cuts and find good value, according to research from chat platform Tidio, which found that 89% of consumers surveyed are willing to spend extra effort comparing deals and 88% will take the time to inspect product quality before purchasing.
Retailers that are being shy about their Black Friday promotions aren't getting the point of the red letter event, and are mistaken if they let the momentary supply constraints dominate their pricing, according to Forrester's Witcher.
"The customer has never cared if a company has 50, 500, or 5,000 units of an item — they are going to be looking for deals and giving business to those who are pushing those promotions out early," he said. "Retailers that have taken on an economist's view of business strategy and used supply/demand models to taper early promotional activity maybe in for a rude awakening leading up to Thanksgiving."
A small advantage
Smaller retailers, including local independents, also are grappling with supply challenges right now, including headaches that come from having less ample inventories, less ability to stock up in bulk and leaner staffs than their bigger rivals.
"It's probably safe to say that Nov. 1 is the new start of holiday deal season going forward."
Forrester Research Principal Analyst of Digital Business Strategy
But they also enjoy some loyalty from the public, which is inclined to support local stores or independent makers like those selling through Etsy. A large majority (93%) of shoppers say supporting small businesses this season is more important than ever because of the pandemic, and nearly half (48%) are more likely to try new businesses than they were before the pandemic, according to the Quickbooks Commerce Small Business Shopping Report by Intuit.
The difficulty that many chains have encountered in staffing up for the season is also felt at smaller retailers, but because they provide a more intimate setting and customer service, that's less likely to lead to a bad experience for shoppers, according to Martindale. That customer care may be especially important in a year when people have to be more creative in the face of shortages.
"It's a lot easier than in a big-box store to create that relationship and really spend time with an associate and look at alternate gift ideas and come up with something that keeps the customer happy," she said.
From now on
Black Friday hasn't been just a Friday for a while now. The shopping event was starting early before the pandemic, and will likely still be early after it.
"It's probably safe to say that Nov. 1 is the new start of holiday deal season going forward," Witcher said.
What probably won't change is the reasons consumers embrace it, according to Martindale.
"How we shop the Black Friday deals has changed, from those in-store doorbusters to mobile, e-commerce, social commerce, gamification and all this interaction in that digital realm, and the duration of Black Friday has changed," she said. "But I think what a little bit gets lost is that the spirit of what shoppers are after on Black Friday hasn't changed, and I don't think that's going anywhere."