Every year, retailers pace nervously like racehorses at the starting gate as they wait for the holiday gift buying season to officially begin on the day after Thanksgiving. The day is called Black Friday because it is the day of the year when retail businesses supposedly move from the red (net loss) into the black (making a profit). For ecommerce sellers as well as brick and mortar retailers, the last weeks of the year can be a make or break period. Many look to Black Friday for signs of what kind of shopping season to expect. As sales and foot traffic on the day after Thanksgiving trend down, we have to ask the question: does Black Friday matter anymore?
No: Black Friday Is Doing Just Fine, Thank You
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Black Friday’s death are greatly exaggerated. While the National Retail Foundation’s (NRF) annual Black Friday survey shows the number of shoppers on the Friday after Thanksgiving declining and the amount spent per shopper also going down over the past five years, those numbers should be placed in context.
For starters, millions of people start shopping before they have fully digested their turkey on Thanksgiving Day. While there has been some backlash against this trend because it takes store employees away from their families (or their football games) on what many consider an important holiday, retailers have found other ways to make up for this. Many start “Black Friday” sales several days before the mad scramble on the actual day.
The NRF study shows that more than 74 million people still showed up at stores on Black Friday in 2015. While that number was down from the 92 million who shopped in 2013, it’s still a lot of shoppers.
To add local color to the festivities, many independent merchants hold special events to cash in on Black Friday sales that otherwise flow mostly to big national retail chains. Events such as Plaid Friday, which started in Oakland, California and has been replicated around the country, are only picking up steam.
On a day when most people are off work and gift lists are being made, Americans want to go shopping.
Black Friday won’t disappear anytime soon.
Yes: Black Friday is On Its Way Out
Every year, online shopping takes a bigger bite out of brick and mortal retail sales, Cyber Monday is creeping closer to Black Friday with deals starting the Sunday before or earlier. In fact, many of the people who storm the doors at malls across the country the day after Thanksgiving aren’t there to buy. They have come to look. Once they decide what they want, they will go online and look for better deals.
As smart phones and tablets increase the reach of ecommerce and the availability of fast Wi-Fi spreads, ecommerce becomes and ever bigger retail force. Customers who don’t want to brave the crowds of crazed shoppers in manic pursuit of Black Friday deals can shop till they drop from the comfort of their own sofas.
There is also a rising tide against Black Friday. A recent trend of opening ever earlier, including on Thanksgiving Day, seems to be reversing, with more stores no longer open on Thursday.
While some big retailers will still open their doors starting at midnight on Friday morning, outdoor retailer REI is taking a stand against manic Black Friday shopping and closing for the day. REI encourages its employees and customers to spend the day enjoying nature instead of fighting over flat screen televisions.
Add to this the fact that up to half of people who do shop the weekend after Thanksgiving will look for online deals, and Black Friday starts to look decidedly pale. Online shoppers spend more per person and ecommerce holiday sales continue to experience double digit growth. With stores that never close, ecommerce sellers make the concept of Black Friday practically obsolete.
The forecasts of holiday sales trends that come out of Black Friday aren’t to be trusted either, according to data site 538.com. So even the news reports about Black Friday sales are mostly hot air.
Another trend that’s draining the life out of Black Friday is the shift to ever earlier holiday sales. Not only do the Christmas decorations start appearing before the Halloween pumpkins disappear; the Black Friday deals that lure shoppers are coming early too. Amazon, Walmart, and Target are among the large retailers offering special holiday sales prices starting in November, both online and (for Target and Walmart) in store.
After the damper of the 2008 recession, retail sales have ticked back up but consumers don’t have the wild optimism to run up huge credit card debts that they once had. If current trends continue, more people will choose quality family time or just some blissful couch potato hours instead of cramming themselves into crowded malls.
Black Friday is just so 2007. It’s over.
Forget it: Black Friday Was Never a Thing in the First Place
Black Friday has always been more about chaos than cash register cha-ching. In 2005, Black Friday became the biggest shopping day of the year, but it wasn’t on top before that and it had slipped back to second place by 2014, behind the Saturday before Christmas, which is sometimes called Super Saturday.
Black Friday shoppers are more likely to be looking than buying. By the weekend before Christmas, customers are done being choosey – they are ready to open their wallets. If you put together the days leading up to Christmas, you have most of the top retail sales days of the year lined up in a neat little row.
The big push in online commerce tends to come earlier in the holiday season, to allow for shipping time, but there’s no time like the last minute for bricks and mortar retailers. And, as fulfillment centers streamline operations and shipping times grow shorter, the biggest bump in online sales will probably move later as well.
Let’s face it: we are a nation of procrastinators. Your Aunt Margaret who has all her Christmas shopping done in July is not normal. Black Friday is a valiant attempt to get us to think ahead and get a jump start on our Christmas shopping. But in November, we’re still shopping for ourselves (we are definitely keeping that flat screen TV). It’s not until the days get really short that most of us become serious about holiday shopping.
Black Friday isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But then again, it probably never was.