The balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade aren’t the only things that might get overinflated this weekend. Black Friday sales also receive too much attention, neglecting that the holiday season for retailers is a marathon, not a sprint.
The cornucopia of consumption that is Black Friday still matters, but its relevance is fading as the shopping season now stretches from the week before Halloween to Christmas Eve. Retailers like Walmart Inc. and Best Buy Co. push the starting gate forward each year to grab early birds, while the proliferation of faster online fulfillment options lets procrastinators wait until the last minute. Toss in that government retail sales data may contradict what’s happening in stores, and you’re left with a sense that Black Friday has had its day.
Black Friday this year is “probably going to be more noise than signal,” Sarah House, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, said in an interview. “The shopping season has gotten so spread out.”
For decades, the day after Thanksgiving had been America’s biggest shopping day, and this year more than 165 million people are expected to take part over the weekend, according to the National Retail Federation. At first glance, this year’s big event appears to hold even more importance, as a calendar quirk means that there are six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas compared with last year.
“It’s a very compressed holiday season,” Target Chief Executive Officer Brian Cornell said. “We lose one full weekend so if you’re in retail, every day counts.”
Target and other retailers have drummed that fact into shoppers with a barrage of ads that began even before some Americans bought their Halloween candy. That’s pulled some spending into early November — more than half of consumers polled by the NRF in the first week of this month had already begun making purchases. On average, Americans already completed almost a quarter of their shopping, the most in the history of NRF’s surveys. That leaves fewer dollars for Friday.
Of course, not everyone’s that eager. For lazy or busy consumers, online shopping provides an easy alternative to braving the cold and crowds on Black Friday. And unlike the early days of e-commerce, where orders needed to be in weeks before Christmas Eve, today’s sophisticated retail supply chains can get presents under the tree just hours after they’re purchased, often with free shipping to boot. And it’s not just Amazon.com: Target, for one, says it will fulfill more online orders over the next five weeks than it did in all of 2015.
So Black Friday won’t necessarily benefit from the shortened season: A Deloitte survey found that Americans will likely shift their activity into December while buying the same as or more than last year. The winners during those final laps will likely be retailers like Walmart, Target and Best Buy, which have captured market share from the industry’s laggards day in and day out all year.
To be sure, a chunk of deal-hungry consumers remain Black Friday junkies. Data tracker NPD found that 17% of consumers plan to wait to start their holiday shopping until Black Friday itself. They do so for many reasons, including tradition, family bonding or just wanting to get out of the house to avoid dicey discussions of politics and the impeachment proceedings in Washington.
–With assistance from Reade Pickert.