After months of speculation around just when Amazon would go through with its annual Prime Day sale, usually held in July, it has finally landed in mid-October. That timing could turn out to be a boon not just for Amazon, but also for the many retailers that have determined that Black Friday is much too late this year.
Normally, Thanksgiving unlocks the door to seasonal shopping. Macy's holds its famous parade, Black Friday is the next day, and people have a few days off to get things going. Even so, in recent years it's become something of a holiday custom for retailers to launch sales a bit before then, according to Michael Brown, partner in strategy and management firm Kearney's consumer practice.
"Black Friday has always been a group launch to the holiday but retailers jockeyed to be first to open or first to break a price," he said in an email. "This year, the rewards will go to those that get far ahead of the pack. Don't wait for others and go out first and fast."
The COVID-19 pandemic has scrambled the retail holiday calendar further: Macy's is producing a slimmed down, television-only event, many people are avoiding stores, and, with travel curtailed and social distancing still prudent, far fewer families will be gathering. As with so many other existing shifts — including the rise of e-commerce and curbside pickup and the downfall of malls — the pandemic has been a catalyst for lasting change.
"What we're seeing right now is the acceleration of several trends that were already beginning to take hold before the pandemic," Tyson Cornell, PwC Consumer Markets Industry Leader, said in an email. "For example, some big brands closed on Thanksgiving last year and this certainly isn't the first time we've seen retailers push sales early. The difference now is that more of the industry is getting on board, and if it goes well, these early sales could have a lasting impact on the traditional holiday sales cycle."
The coronavirus has disrupted e-commerce, too, leading to shortages and fulfillment delays, even at Amazon. And the pandemic, still not under control in most parts of the U.S., could resurge. That might make Halloween, or even earlier, a wiser holiday launch time, and Prime Day in October could be a good substitute for Black Friday, some experts say.
"When consumers open their wallet, they open it for a lot of things — you fish when the fish are hungry," Forrester Research Principal Analyst Brendan Witcher said. "Amazon owns Prime Day, but it also gets supported by other brands because the one thing about retail is, when someone buys from somebody else, there's always a risk they're going to lose that customer. The strategy retailers are taking is, 'Let Amazon open the wallets and once they're open, dive in like hyenas and take advantage of it.'"
Retailers 'pulling demand forward'
Several retailers have indicated in one way or another that they will attempt to get a jump on the holiday season this year.
In early September, Home Depot announced that this year its Black Friday prices start in early November. "Say goodbye to one day of frenzied shopping and enjoy Black Friday savings all season long without the stress and crowds," the retailer said.
Around the same time, Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette told analysts that he expects consumers will still be wary of shopping in stores during normally busy periods like Black Friday and the 10 days before Christmas. Retailers will need additional days to ship holiday purchases "comfortably and safely" and on time as people go online instead, he said. Macy's has announced a "Fabulous Fall Sale," J.C. Penney a "BeautiFALL Sale" and retailers of all stripes are stuffing customer inboxes with similar promotions.
"[I]n the past, historically, we have not seen the opportunity to move demand earlier than Thanksgiving for a holiday purchase," Gennette said, according to a Motley Fool transcript of the company's second-quarter conference call. "But I believe this year is the year that it will happen."
Other retailers may believe that too. Walmart and Target both pounced after Amazon revealed its Prime Day dates, announcing sales of their own during very similar time frames. Days later, Best Buy announced that its "not-yet-released Black Friday" deals would be available the same days as Prime Day, Oct. 13-14. But even retailers like Macy's that are taking less obvious steps probably have Amazon's sale in mind, according to Lee Peterson, executive vice president of thought leadership and marketing at WD Partners.
"Prime day is right in the middle of October, so everybody's copying that," Peterson said. "The way you 'pull demand' forward as a retailer is you tease the customer with some kind of special merchandise, special promotion. So many retailers have figured out that they can ride the coattails of Amazon. They're going to jump onto Prime Day and everyone will do well with it. Amazon is going to do great, but everyone will benefit."
There are reasons to get shoppers to buy for the holidays earlier this year, beyond the need for more time to process online orders and make up for less shopping in physical stores.
That includes insights into shopping patterns and consumer sentiment, a share of what could be limited spending power and "access to the most desirable holiday hires," according to Kearney's Brown. "It's critical to start the season early given what we know."
Furthermore, several retailers, notably Target, Walmart and home players like Wayfair, have amassed new customers thanks to the pandemic. It behooves them to appeal to them for the holidays while the iron is still hot, according to Forrester's Witcher.
"When you get new customers, you want to create a habit," he said. "They're chomping at the bit to get that second purchase out of them."
Like Santa, retailers make a holiday list and check it at least twice, and that, too, has to happen earlier this year, given the supply chain disruption brought on by the pandemic, Brown and Witcher noted.
"Retailers are trying to target their final purchase orders by Nov. 1 to the 15th, and to do that they need a demand curve to place those last P.O.s — what's hot, what's not," Witcher said.
Moreover, retailers have seen what closing stores did to their sales and remain mindful that, with the pandemic hardly under control in the U.S., that could happen again, according to Witcher.
Can it be done?
It's not clear that consumers will be ready to dive into holiday shopping so early this year, however.
Some experts believe they will, with a marketing push from retailers. "You absolutely can do it with the right marketing, the right promotional cadence," Witcher said. "There is no doubt in my mind that it's Black Friday all through the holiday this year, but the argument will also be that while these deals are going to last throughout the holiday season, when we're out, we're out, and people are going to remember how that feels."
For many consumers, getting things done for the holidays will be a welcome upbeat task in a year filled with anxiety around their finances and physical well being, and many will have more money on hand because they haven't spent on travel or dining out, according to retail consultant Matt Sargent, principal of Sargent Up North.
"I think you'll see people open to spending earlier," Sargent said by phone. "People are going to want to spread it out and spend more time on that process. The retailers and the brands benefit the more you spread out that holiday period, and the better it is for holiday fulfillment. It can be a far more profitable and manageable process and a more enjoyable one for everyone."
Others are not so sure.
"There is too much uncertainty around the holidays for Prime Day to have an outsized influence," Greg Portell, Kearney's head of Global Consumer Industries and Retail, said by email. "Consumers are unable to plan on parties or even family get-togethers to know how to shop."
He agrees that retailers will move "to take advantage of the attention Prime Day brings to shopping" and that consumers may partake because they're looking for a reason "to feel good." But there's also a potential downside, especially if retailers depend too much on price and don't have the right merchandise on offer.
"By pulling attention on holiday shopping earlier, retailers risk depressing traditional shopping during the September/October time period," he said. "COVID has taught us that traditional retail defined calendars are increasingly out of sync with consumer trends. Rather than pulling forward the holiday shopping season, [an] October sales frenzy risks further conditioning consumers to seek deals."
Even Macy's Gennette noted that Thanksgiving and Black Friday will hardly be knocked off their retail pedestal. "The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is still going to be incredibly important," he said. "But I do expect spreading some of that demand earlier, and we've got tactics and strategies to do that."
That's pretty vague, but if there's anything the pandemic has ushered in for retail, it's a new level of uncertainty. While the disease outbreak will continue to shape consumer behavior into the holidays, it's hard to know how much it will affect timing, according to PwC's Cornell. More obvious is that e-commerce and BOPIS will be go-tos; PwC found that 35% of shoppers plan to use curbside pickup this year.
"While we think holiday shopping will spread over the next three months as retailers leverage more frequent promotions to move inventory, it's likely we'll still see shoppers spend on Black Friday and post-Thanksgiving this year," Cornell said. "We believe that COVID will have more of an impact on how people shop, driving consumers to break away from their old ways to shop online and try fulfillment methods like curbside pickup for the first time, just one of many convenient shopping experiences that will likely stick around even when the pandemic comes to an end."