Black Friday — it's complicated.
Perhaps above all, the pandemic isn't over (and unfortunately could be entering another worrisome phase, according to a report from the World Health Organization over the Thanksgiving weekend). Throughout 2021, retailers and consumers have continued to grapple with its many consequences beyond the health threat, and that was evident on Black Friday.
Actually, that was evident well before Black Friday, as retailers began their holiday marketing just as trick-or-treating wrapped up, with many consumers starting their seasonal shopping even before that. Getting a jump on holiday shopping was growing even before the pandemic. But this year, headlines about inventory worries, as the pandemic continued to roil supply chains, made an early start seem prudent for most everyone.
The shopping weekend was ongoing at press time. But Black Friday has now come and gone, and some winners and losers have emerged.
The trend from a few years ago — when several retailers ruined many a retail worker's holiday by opening their doors for early Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving Day — is now decidedly in reverse. Malls run by Simon Property Group joined Walmart and several others in making a point of shuttering for the day; Target last week went so far as to say it will do so from now on.
That doesn't mean "no shopping," however. Online shopping during the feast day in the U.S. ticked up 1% year over year to $6.9 billion, according to Salesforce, with Adobe finding those sales only on par with last year, reaching $5.1 billion.
Buy now, pay later
In the old days, some retailers would make it easier for customers to splurge on holiday gifts by allowing them to put items on layaway to be paid for over time. The new layaway is "buy now, pay later," made possible by a slew of platforms like Klarna and Affirm that facilitate installment payments.
The payment alternative is shaping up to be a hallmark of this year. In November so far, compared to a similar period in 2019, BNPL-based spending was up 422% and order volume was up 438%, according to Adobe. Consumers have chosen the payment option on 8% of their Cyber Week orders so far, up 31% from last year, according to Salesforce.
The option may be helping consumers cope with higher prices, according to Black Friday research from ACI Worldwide, which found that while the volume of Black Friday e-commerce transactions remained the same year over year, their value doubled, "showing an increased consumer confidence in spending potentially fueled by the growing popularity of Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) options."
With the lockdowns of 2020 over and vaccinations readily available in early 2021, foot traffic to malls and brick-and-mortar retailers has picked up all year. But consumers continue to embrace curbside pickup, out of ongoing pandemic concerns as well as a desire for convenience, according to Adobe.
So far in November, curbside pickup is up 70% compared to two years ago, though on Nov. 26 it was applied to 20% of online orders, down from earlier in the month, Adobe found.
Big box retail — by a little
Large retailers, with more robust supply chains to begin with and some cases the ability to charter their own ships, have yet another advantage this year over their smaller rivals. Since October, large retailers saw a 22% higher growth in revenue on average than small retailers, according to Adobe.
"People certainly seem to be out in the big mass merchants — Walmart and Target were extremely busy," AlixPartners Managing Director Joel Rampoldt said by phone Saturday. "And their curbside operations were extremely busy, which I think is a very good sign for that format and that functionality."
Still, at press time the weekend was not yet over, and Small Business Saturday was ongoing, an event that Adobe expects to net between $4.5 billion and $5.1 billion. Moreover, the order value of a sale at a smaller retailer "is typically ... at least 8% higher" than at a large retailer, Adobe said.
The ongoing supply chain debacle — one of the most vivid indications that the pandemic is far from over — has not been solved in time for the holiday season.
Out-of-stock messages were up 124% in November so far compared to January 2020, according to Adobe. The situation has its upsides, as seen in higher prices. And consumers will likely find what they need, according to AlixPartner's Rampoldt.
"What I see in stores and what we see with our clients is there's a broad range of goods available for purchase," Rampoldt said. "People are going to be able to go out in stores and find something pretty close to what they wanted. They may not have exactly what they want. They may have the style and color that they want, but their size isn't in the store. And so they had to get through e-commerce, or something like that."
Holiday marketing centers around special deals, but this year retailers are hewing as close as possible to full price, according to several reports.
On Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., the average discount was 27%, down 7% from last year, with the average order value up 11%, despite the fact that 3% fewer items were purchased, Salesforce found. From Nov. 23 to Nov. 25, the average selling price in the U.S. was up 22% compared to the same period last year, per that report.
That wasn't true for all retail. Stores including Gap (with discounts of 40% to 50%), Macy's (up to 65%), Aritzia (up to 50%) and Madewell (30%) featured hefty promotions, while Nordstrom and Foot Locker were less promotional, according to store checks reported by Brian Ehrig, a partner in the retail practice at consulting firm Kearney.
"There are definitely fewer promotions — far fewer of what we used to call doorbuster promotions," AlixPartner's Rampoldt said. "I observed much more brands trying to hold the line. For people who want early markdowns, they are just not going to be out there because the supply is more restricted, and the stores are going to need to sell what they have and be very thoughtful about how they do that. And that means they're going to mark down less and they're going to mark down later."
With more retailers keeping their doors locked on Thanksgiving, it's no surprise that, as Sensormatic Solutions found, visits to brick-and-mortar stores fell 90.4% that day compared to two years ago.
A majority (65%) of U.S. consumers plan to shop in-store this holiday season to get gift ideas or check out products in person, and some are going to stores to head off any delivery delays, per that report. But while in-store shopping on Black Friday was up compared to last year, it was down 28.3% compared to pre-pandemic 2019, Sensormatic also found.
"With concerns about supply chain delays, we expect to see consumers make the most of in-store shopping opportunities," Brian Field, senior director of global retail consulting at Sensormatic Solutions, said in a statement. "Coupled with unified commerce options like buy online, pick up in-store and pickup at curbside, consumers can ensure they are getting their holiday shopping done when and where it’s most convenient."