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A Poultry Turnout or a Bigger Slice of the Pie?

We are all susceptible to media hype, and to established narratives, so it’s easy to miss important details in the growing chaos and chatter that surrounds Black Friday each year. We see big crowds and big bargains and a holiday shopping event that used to be a day now morphing into a brick-and-mortar and online extravaganza that lasts more than a week. That said, we should be asking what is really going on behind the scenes — and behind the numbers — and what does that mean for retailers for the rest of the holiday shopping season?

The headline of most post-Black Friday analyses is the relatively poor sales numbers — including the first decline in Black Friday weekend spending decline in four years — and the comparatively robust online figures: up 15% for the weekend, setting a new record of approximately $1.2 billion, and up 21% on Cyber Monday. To me, however, the bigger story here (or at least the more interesting one) is not that online sales are up, but that mobile sales took such a dramatic leap forward.

According to Bloomberg.com, mobile devices (including phones and tablets) were responsible for 32% of Cyber Monday site visits, a 45% increase over 2012, and a full 17% of purchases made on Cyber Monday were executed through mobile devices. Those are enormous jumps, especially considering the fact that mobile has been viewed by some as the toughest nut to crack in the online sales category. As an aside, one figure that stood out to me is the fact that approximately 80% of all mobile purchases were performed with an Apple device. Considering the fact that Apple’s market share is around 33%, that’s a significant disparity. I suspect that part of the explanation there comes from the eye-opening fact that 90% of tablet users on e-commerce sites visited those sites using an iPad.

Another trend that is showing no sign of slowing down is the continued expansion of what was once a one-day event into something much more extensive. In a previous column in this space, I touched on the spillover of Black Friday into “Gray Thursday”, and about how many more retailers were opening on Thanksgiving proper this year. This is a dramatic change from just a few years ago, when retailers who opened their doors at midnight on Black Friday were thought to be really pushing the envelope.

Has this shopping window expansion worked? Has it actually increased sales? Well, at first glance, the results would seem to be encouraging: the National Retail Foundation estimates that the number of shoppers was up during the four-day weekend (up 1.2% from 2012, reaching a total of 141 million shoppers). My own anecdotal observations seemed to support that, as traffic was quite heavy during the peak periods. But the longer the event, the more non-peak periods there are, and, while Black Friday foot traffic was great, sales were still underwhelming, and both numbers dropped off significantly through the rest of the weekend. Mirroring the Black Friday creep, the ongoing evolution of Cyber Monday into a “cyber week” of promotions meant that Cyber Monday itself saw a drop-off from last year’s numbers — even while overall online and mobile sales were up dramatically overall. I can’t help but think that shopper fatigue is a big factor here.

What about the big picture, though: how will these changes translate to the rest of the holiday season, and how will the increase in online and mobile sales impact brick and mortar? I really don’t think the online/mobile increase will be much of a drag on brick-and-mortar in the near term. Even with the noteworthy increases, the NRF says that online sales still only accounted for 14% of total sales for the weekend. But, the long-term implications for brick-and-mortar might be a different story.

We also need to remember that, while we tend to talk about online versus brick-and-mortar as if they two distinct and competing entities, there is significant overlap. Retailers who can capitalize on multiple distribution channels will likely flourish regardless of how online sales evolve. Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy, for example, don’t really care whether you buy online or in-store — as long as they make the sale.

As for 2013, how successful the holiday season will be overall depends partly on how you define when that season begins and ends, but for now I’m going to stick with my fairly conservative (perhaps even pessimistic) call of a relatively flat season for November and December. We might see a small uptick of 1%-2%, but I think any gains over 2012 are going to be very modest.

I’d love to get your feedback and hear what conclusions you drew from this year’s Black Friday Weekend and Cyber Week retail pageantry. Do you agree that mobile was the big winner? And, given the rapidly-changing nature of the retail dynamics that drive this uniquely hectic kickoff the true holiday shopping season: what do we know this year that we didn’t know last year? Leave a comment below or send your thoughts to Jeff@JeffGreenPartners.com to join the conversation.


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© 2014