I once again have completed my annual Black Friday store observation trip throughout Northern Virginia. Usually I can walk away and say either this is going to be a good holiday season, or a bad one, but this year I have mixed emotions based on what I observed. Many were looking for Black Friday to give us a glimpse into the future of the holiday season and an indicator of where the U.S. economy is heading.
The pressure has been on retail, but more specifically the Technology sector for weeks, even months, as the mainstream media has been focusing on what consumers are going to buy, how much they are going to spend, and whether or not it’s going to help the overall U.S. economy. Well, Black Friday came and went and I am not sure that what I saw is going to help predict the future.
So here are a few things I noticed:
The lines appeared about the same or slightly longer than last year.
Customers were still in line waiting to get into stores an hour after they opened. Best Buy, Target, and Walmart all had very strong traffic. Walmart was a little harder to tell as this year’s “let them in” policy meant it was hard to say how many people were really waiting for the 5am Doorbusters.
At least some of the maintenance, or growth, in customers is likely attributable to the demise of Circuit City. Their customers had to go somewhere and it appears they helped bolster everybody’s lines.
In the general merchandise stores that we visited, like Target and Walmart, the electronics department was probably the busiest.
Unfortunately, the first four hours of sales on the unofficial first day of holiday shopping have never been a good bellwether for the overall economy, and are probably less relevant today than ever. There are a number of factors at play here. Certainly the tremendous amount of Black Friday-like sales that preceded Friday’s shopping bonanza stripped some of the excitement and demand from Black Friday. Consumers in the opening hours of Black Friday are the ones willing to wait in line for hours to get the products we have promoted and advertised to them. They are not tire kickers, or browsers, they are buyers with a purpose, focused on the products we have directed them to. It is pretty easy to sell heat lamps to the Eskimos and just as easy as well to sell $200 notebooks and $300 32” LCD’s to a select few customers. The part we want to know is what else did they buy and that isn’t readily apparent from the first four hours of shopping. We need to wait for the release of NPD’s weekly data and our Black Friday webinar with DisplaySearch to get a clearer picture of all the results.
Of course the online revolution has also zapped some of the predictive nature of Black Friday’s in-store activity away. Not just Amazon or Newegg, but just about every tech retailer has been aggressively driving consumers to their Web site to buy at Black Friday prices all month (and some have been selling the actual Black Friday goods online as well). All-in-all Black Friday is a great day for tech because it is has helped cement technology as a leading retail consumer category, but it certainly doesn’t provide the holiday answers that everyone wants to hear.
Stephen Baker, is The NPD Group’s Vice President, Industry Analysis