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Reflections On Black Friday And Beyond

Another Black Friday and Cyber Monday have come and gone, and what have we learned from the experience?

Well, according to a video on Jimmy Kimmel’s show on Monday night, people in the U.K. can be just as brutish (not British) and crazy on Black Friday, even without celebrating Thanksgiving, as he deftly noted.

For the first time in many years I did not brave the crowds on Black Friday to get a hands-on look at how CE and maybe some major appliances performed, at least in the New York metropolitan area.

But I do have more than a few observations as to what went on.

In discussing Black Friday coverage after last year with TWICE’s resident retail expert, Alan Wolf, we considered  the advent of store openings on Thanksgiving (“Black Thanksgiving”), month-long November promotions (“Black November”), Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, and independent shopping websites tipping what the best deals will be a week or two before the extended weekend. Our conclusion: What’s the point of visiting a few stores on those days to witness the shopping behavior of our fellow citizens?

Consumers now have a weekend-long (dare I say month-long) opportunity for great deals. And more and more sales are being done via mobile devices or desktop as this TWICE report showed – a 16 percent increase in online sales with Walmart claiming record revenue and more modest increases even for smaller retailers.

Speaking of which, there is really no explanation for Best Buy’s website to have gone down on Black Friday. There is no crying in baseball, and no excuse for that if they are serious about online sales.

I chuckled at the reader Talkbacks in reaction to this story about Walmart and Target both bragging about strong Thanksgiving sales. I agree with the sentiment: Did either make any money on the cheap CE products they sold?

The strategy of selling low-end CE on these days remains the same, year in, year out, along with some select giveaways of premium products, to the detriment of many retailers and manufacturers.

For all the attempts by Walmart and Target to have exclusive CE products or act like they are trying to go a bit upscale, their stock in trade when it comes to CE is still lower-end items. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they need to be open on Thanksgiving, since they use CE as a loss leader for traffic that day and every day, plain and simple.

Today, publicly-held national chains that were founded as brick-and-mortar companies must be open on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, or get beaten up by their overseers, Wall Street. That’s because they need to do something to combat the monolithic, 24/7, 365 days-a-year corporation that can grind them up, Amazon, which began its “Black Friday” sales November 21, eight days before the actual event.

Shoppers did turn out for Thanksgiving deals, tradition, family and football be damned. But I’ve always wondered whether those brave shoppers who are supporting our economy are really out there to buy CE products at killer prices, or use it as an excuse to get out of the house before they kill an in-law or a crazy uncle or aunt during the annual dinner that marks the beginning of the holiday season.

I agree with a lot of the observations made in a TWICE blog by John Rice of Komedia Group days before Black Friday. A key point in his blog is this, “Black Friday/Thanksgiving openings will only end when they no longer make sense, when they no longer have a competitive advantage; when they no longer have an impact on the bottom line. It will happen.”

I agree. Like anything else Thanksgiving openings and Black Friday rampages will end when they don’t make economic sense anymore. But who knows when that will be? Maybe sooner rather than later, based on some of the early traffic results.

I also divulged a dirty little secret about myself in a Talkback to Rice’s blog, namely that I once was a retail salesperson. “Truth be told, in college I worked part-time for a couple of years selling men’s clothes at an independent retailer,” I wrote. “Saturday was always our busiest day of the week, year ’round. Sunday we were closed.

“One holiday season the owner had the bright idea to open on the two Sundays prior to Christmas. The full- time salesman and I were not pleased. The full-time salesman predicted that Saturday’s sales would be spread out over two days during those two weekends.

“The owner wouldn’t admit it but it turned out the full-time guy was right. I wonder if, after all the promotions, CEO bluster, etc. that in some cases Thanksgiving sales are just spreading out the Black Friday rush.”

But so many retailers who sell CE still think the current 50-year-old or so strategy works. Or are afraid to come up with another approach.

As one CE Hall of Fame manufacturing exec who fought the Black Friday wars for years mentioned to me, almost wistfully a year or two ago, “There aren’t any great merchants at retail anymore.”

I knew what he meant. Imagination and showmanship are needed at retail more than ever, and in many cases are severely lacking.

While many surveys say that consumers will be doing the bulk of their shopping in December,  I predict that many who track the data will say that retail sales – online and in stores – will be slow the weekends of Dec. 6-7 and 13-14. Why? Retailers have trained consumers very, very well. Wait until the very last minute… and prices will drop.

What is needed for this era are new ideas and, as my Hall of Fame friend mentioned,  “great merchants” who can draw crowds and drive profitable sales without giving away earnings.