Retailers for years have faced enormous pressure to make up a lot of sales for the entire year on just one day, the day after Thanksgiving.
But Black Friday is no longer really a day, or even a couple of days. It’s more of a mindset at this point, and it’s rapidly evolving.
“The whole ethos around Black Friday is really shifting now,” says retail futurist Doug Stephens, author of "The Retail Revival: Re-Imagining Business for the New Age of Consumerism" and the Retail Prophet blog. “Let’s not forget that traffic to stores on Black Friday was down last year, with an 11% decline."
So one has to wonder—is this really becoming a question of marginal returns on the tremendous effort that retailers have to put into it?" Stephens says. "Is it really worth their while? It makes you wonder if they should be investing those resources online.”
As door-buster deals loose their appeal and many stores end their "Black Friday creep," Retail Dive takes a look at the evolution of Black Friday—and what the future may look like for this historically important shopping day.
Door-buster deals are 'more trouble than they’re worth'
No doubt due in part to past years' tragic melees—trampling, Tasering, and pepper spraying—that occurred amidst the hype of now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t door-busting deals, a great majority of shoppers — a whopping 79% in fact— don't enjoy Black Friday. They find it stressful and even dangerous, according to deal site BestBlackFriday.com, which conducted the survey.
Stephens notes that the news stories around Black Friday incidents have not exactly been good for brands, either. Jason Goldberg, VP of commerce at digital marketing firm Razorfish and blogger at RetailGeek.com, concurs, adding that it doesn’t help that the disappointment from not getting a door buster deal also makes the news these days, via social media.
“So in general, we see retailers relying less on this ‘scarcity’ thing, instead saying ‘We have a good deal for everybody that comes,’” Goldberg told Retail Dive. “Otherwise, they get a bunch of customers that don’t get that deal, and complain on Facebook. In this world of better transparency, the gimmick promotions are more trouble than they’re worth.”
The shift to Thanksgiving
The evolution of Black Friday includes a shift into Thanksgiving, which Goldberg says is the result of the Black Friday arms race. That is, retailers bragged about Black Friday hours, pushing their door-opening times earlier and earlier until people began camping out at midnight on Thanksgiving.
“Someone finally broke the bubble and opened Thursday night,” says Goldberg.
Right now, retailers are trotting out their Black Friday hours, and things seem a bit more subdued. In fact, whatever their decision, retailers seem compelled to give their reasoning vis a vis Thanksgiving. Those staying closed, like Staples and Costco, emphasize that they want to give their employees and customers a day to enjoy their families and friends. And those opening, like Target and Wal-Mart, insist they’re meeting the needs of their customers. Target went so far as to call shopping there a Thanksgiving tradition.
“Six p.m. continues to be the right opening time for us,” Target chief stores officer Tina Tyler told reporters on a media briefing. “It felt good to us last year to be able to allow those family traditions to take place around Thanksgiving, but also let shopping be part of it.”
Many retailers have discovered that consumers who do shop on Thanksgiving stick with just one retailer, and a later start time helps solidify that, Goldberg says.
It’s not lost on retailers that opening on Thanksgiving is controversial, though. In recent years (and this year) there have been protests, calls for boycotts, and petitions from consumers and workers who say the day is too sacred for all the retail madness. Still, while surveys consistently show that consumers disapprove of a store opening on Thanksgiving, many still keep showing up that day to shop. And that means certain retailers will continue to welcome them that day, says Goldberg.
“There is a pretty big backlash to that because now you have a bunch of kids who work at Target and can’t spend Thanksgiving with their families,” he says. “And our friends at REI decided to go nuts and say even on Black Friday, everyone just go outside. It’s going to be interesting, but if I had to guess, I think opening at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving is going to the the new normal for a while.”
Several retailers are finding ways to get people to hurry up and into the store, without dialing up the hype too far, experts note. Amazon is already offering its “lightning deals,” and Nov. 22 Target will begin offering specials on certain toys on certain days, which shoppers can access through the retailer’s Cartwheel app.
And Wal-Mart is making certain deals available online at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time on Thanksgiving. As for “door busters” on Black Friday, anyone in line at a brick-and-mortar Wal-Mart between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. will get the deal they’re hoping for even if the item runs out, no pushing or shoving necessary.
In a shift, Wal-Mart is putting some 95% of its Black Friday deals online, a nod to the fact that many shoppers who do shop on Thanksgiving do so from home. And in a departure from many of its rivals, including Target, the retailer will maintain its $50 minimum order for free shipping.
One key piece of technology this year, says Goldberg, will be tablets or other devices that enable store associates to check shoppers out rather than having everyone bunch up in line. In some cases they can deal with returns or order up a television to the loading dock. That, plus same-day delivery, and omnichannel services like in-store pickup or returns of online orders could all help keep things merry and bright.
What’s the alternative?
While Black Friday was once a handy way for retailers to unload end-of-year inventory and get into the black for the new year, the recession and the rise of e-commerce may have broken that irrevocably.
With promotions all year round, Black Friday deals have to be ever more spectacular, driving margins to the thinnest edge of the wedge. And with e-commerce available anywhere anytime, especially now on mobile, there’s little point in busting down a door to get a deal, safety hazard or not.
Goldberg says that there’s still plenty of value to having sales on special days like Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, even "the holidays." Certainly, Singles Day in China, with more than $14 billion in sales in one jaw-dropping day, proved that. Still, retailers here are dealing with consumers both wary of spending and savvy about prices. Increasingly, retailers selling to U.S. shoppers must be fair and transparent about their offers.
“In the old days you had to trust if Target said they had the best deal of the year on Friday. You wouldn't see it until Thursday's paper,” Goldberg said. “But now there’s a million blog articles and social media, and the consumer knows, well ahead. And so that game is less effective.”
It could be time, then, for retailers to do more than simply expand Black Friday by starting deals earlier in November, opening on Thanksgiving, or blasting Cyber Monday emails. The bust-up of Black Friday may signal a need for more fundamental change.
“There’s a way of dispensing with this by doing better in their stores the other 360 days of the year and getting better at selling online,” Stephens told Retail Dive. “With Prime Day, Amazon said to the entire retail world: ‘We don’t need your Black Friday. We don’t need some archaic tradition of having a sale the day after Thanksgiving.’”
And retailers would do well to remember that the customers shopping in their stores or at their sites on Black Friday (or, more accurately, "around Black Friday time") are doing more than helping them out of the red for the year, says Stephens.
“There two values to every pair of feet that come into the store,” he said. “One is the value they have every day, but the other value is to turn them into a brand advocate. It’s not just about what they carry out that day because, later, they could buy more from you online or from your mobile app. It’s not just about stacking up cheap televisions and having people climb over each other to get them.”