Retail Rap: Shades of Gray in Black Friday

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has begun to notice some changes in that most iconic of holiday shopping events: Black Friday. From earlier start times, to new and more elaborate marketing and promotional efforts, Black Friday has evolved into something very different than a one-day holiday season kick-off sale. This year, we are already seeing an expansion of that trend, including changes that might give us insights into the mindset of many brick-and-mortar retailers as they prepare for the final sprint to the seasonal finish line.

The first and most noticeable difference in the holiday shopping dynamic this year is that virtually everything is happening earlier. Just when you think the holiday shopping season can’t get started any sooner, 2013 proves you wrong, with some brands already working hard to push their holiday strategies as early as the end of September. To put that into perspective, the last official day of summer was September 21st! With a soft second quarter and back-to-school numbers still on the minds of retailers, it seems clear that retailers are trying to get a head start holiday season. “Panic” might be too strong a word, but there is clearly some concern. As I mentioned in an earlier article, it is also worth noting that there are six fewer days of holiday shopping this year between Black Friday and Christmas (and one fewer weekend), contributing to the general sense of urgency.

The early trend continues to filter into Black Friday, with a number of chains announcing that they will be opening at 8:00 pm on Thanksgiving. Macy’s, Bon-Ton, Kohl’s and JCP are among the brands that are helping to continue the metamorphosis of Black Friday into more of a Thursday night phenomenon. Wal-Mart began its online holidays on Nov. 1, and Toys R Us also began airing holiday adds sooner than in 2012.

My biggest question about the early start to holiday sales is whether or not it works. I can’t help but wonder how much, if any, impact it will have on sales. Last year, virtually every employee I spoke to at several different brands mentioned a similar phenomenon: after the hustle and bustle of the initial opening, there was a pronounced lull that didn’t really pick up until prime-time shopping hours on Friday. In other words, whether that initial door-buster rush takes place at 8 p.m., midnight, or 5 a.m. on Friday, the overall shopper/sales volume seemed to be fairly similar. So is this strategy based on getting folks in the door, or just something that more brands are doing because they feel like they can’t afford not to — an effort to keep up with the proverbial Joneses?

The impact of those door-buster loss leaders is also pretty marginal (at least in terms of direct sales, where they represent a fractionally tiny percentage of total sales). They are more of a marketing tool than anything else. Plus, the shopper who is motivated and focused enough to get up off the couch on Thanksgiving and go stand in line to take advantage of those deals tends to be fairly zeroed in on one or two specific items—there is not a lot of impulse buying going on.

While it’s interesting to think about how the mechanics of the big kick-off events have changed, the reality is that Black Friday itself is simply not as important as it once was. Ironically, that’s not because it has gotten smaller, but because it has gotten bigger. It’s not a Friday event anymore — it’s a true weekend-long event (that starts on Thursday night). It is the same phenomenon we are seeing with Cyber Monday, which has now turned into Cyber Week. And, as the shopping season continues to start earlier and earlier, the impact of any single day of shopping, no matter how well promoted, will continue to be diluted.

Retailers are well aware of the overall importance of the holiday shopping season, of course — arguably more so than ever. A recent piece right here in Chain Store Age highlighted just how comprehensive Target’s 2013 holiday campaign truly is: a multi-channel initiative that includes a big promotional push, an extended price-matching initiative (that expands the usual seven-day window to nearly two months during the holidays), and an expanded in-store pick-up program that provides online shoppers with a same-day in-store pick-up option. What I find especially intriguing about Target’s efforts is not just how extensive they are, but how they seem to demonstrate retailers’ ability to become increasingly savvy and sophisticated about their online and brick-and-mortar synergies. From cross-channel promotions and coordinated social media initiatives, to the in-store pickup options and price-matching, it’s almost a new way of utilizing brick and mortar. I’ll be very interested to see how they promote and execute these programs in the weeks ahead.

What do you think? I’d love to hear about what you’ve seen out there this year — especially any examples of brands leveraging Black Friday and other holiday sales promotions in new and inventive ways. Join the conversation by leaving your comments below or emailing me at Jeff@JeffGreenPartners.com.


Click here for past columns by Jeff Green.

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