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Retailers Push the Season by Getting a Jump on Black Friday

Tracking Black Friday sales is nothing new. What’s changed is the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season has become even less official. And this year with the glut of deals promoted well ahead of Thanksgiving, the shopping period has started even earlier and become more diffused.

Ever since e-commerce began to gain traction with consumers, Black Friday has struggled to maintain its relevance as shoppers have gone from lining up on Friday to heading online on Monday. And while Cyber Monday still promises to pack a punch—last year online sales totaled $6.59 billion in the U.S. that day, according to Adobe—even that powerhouse shopping trigger could have competition as the holiday continues to creep earlier and earlier.

For most retailers, the commercials, emails, circulars and signage touting holiday deals began days, if not weeks, ahead of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Of the major players, Amazon and Target were first out of gate with promotions seven and five days ahead of Black Friday, respectively, according to advisory firm Edge by Ascential.

And it’s not just the timing; the messaging has also changed, with marketers being more upfront about what will go on sale when.

Danny Silverman, CMO of Edge by Ascential, said expect more of this early bird mentality.

“It’s no longer table stakes. It’s one-upmanship,” he said, of the early promotions. In fact, he said, the best deals of the season are likely to have been in the first wave of sales—or at least have already been announced. “I think retailers are still leading with their best deals because if their competition has rolled out the best and they didn’t, they’d lose the sales.”

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While he admits that consumers might be frustrated by the deluge of promotional messages and staggered sales cadence, ultimately Silverman thinks the strategy plays in retailers’ favor. “In the long run, being able to spread bets gives retailers more chance to adjust as they go.”

Also, promoting continuous online savings also helps them insulate against one big variable. “In general weather can be a big a factor but because of the shift to online, it becomes less and less of an issue,” Silverman said.

Consumers, too, will be winners in this new strategy that has retailers putting all of their cards on the table, according to Naveen Jaggi, president of retail advisory services at JLL.

“Consumers are aware of all their options far in advance of Black Friday,” he said. “The emphasis on 5 a.m. on Thursday or Friday morning is less so now because you have information at your disposal to make smart, educated shopping decisions.”

Even though they now have the ability to plan ahead and execute from their pjs, there are still those consumers who simply enjoy the sport of shopping. In fact, a Friday morning survey of JLL’s eastern seaboard properties found that both sales and foot traffic were higher than expected or at least on par with predictions.

That tracks with the many pre-season predictions that set expectations for a strong quarter, with sales up by as much as 5 percent to 5.4 percent, according to Deloitte.

While many shoppers might welcome the respite from wrestling for gifts in the chaos of Black Friday sales, the reality is, those doorbusters were an impetus to buy—one that evaporates without the you-have-to-be-present-to-win mentality.

“Retailers need to be creative,” cautions Iris Mohr, chair and associate professor of marketing at The Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University. “If there’s no sense of urgency, it makes it easier for [shoppers] to procrastinate.” That’s especially dangerous for apparel retailers, since consumers are notoriously fickle about fashion. Give them a reason to hesitate, she said, and you could lose the sale altogether.

“It boils down to retailers being very creative with their sales and offering an experiential angle because just slashing prices is no longer going to lure consumers given that it’s what everybody is doing,” she said.

Further, Mohr expects retailers that catered to their biggest fans to be the biggest winners—during Q4 and beyond.

“Retailers can’t assume consumers who make a purchase on Black Friday or Cyber Monday are going to come back,” she said. “They shouldn’t neglect their retention strategy. [They] should focus on VIP customers—the top 3 percent. The VIPs will show the most loyalty.”

But even the most loyal shopper can be wooed, especially if the store they’re used to frequenting has gone dark or is threatening to do so. In that case, Jaggi said this season presents a unique opportunity.

“Most retailers look at it as an opportunity to gain market share against a recently deceased retailer like Toys R Us, while others like Best Buy J.C. Penney, Kohl’s are looking to attract some of the Sears shoppers who are very loyal, especially in the midwest, but are asking themselves, ‘Is Sears here for the long run?’,” he said.