Deep discounts, sales and “doorbusters” send customers by the millions into stores, malls, and more recently, onto websites to score gifts, often buying for themselves as much as others. Over 70% of consumers indicate that they believe the best deals of the year are found during the holiday shopping season. With 76% of consumers stating that a discount or promotion is extremely important when making a purchase, the allure of shopping on the day traditionally celebrated for the most important holiday deals is strong. 4 in 10 consumers find purchasing items on sale to be nearly impossible to pass up, and when buying holiday presents is on everyone’s mind, this is even more important.
Few Great American Pastimes are more popular than finding a bargain, and the popularity of Black Friday and the subsequent shopping events Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Black Friday in July have spread to other countries, especially in the United Kingdom. In our increasingly connected and global economy, many other consumers enjoy taking part, and consumers are more than happy to give them a reason to shop. Even in more socially restrained societies, the bug is contagious. In Japan, most of the sales occur during the New Year festivities, but many US-owned chains there still offer popular Black Friday deals around the same time the Americans are gorging on turkey and discounted televisions.
In the United Kingdom, Black Friday sales were growing in popularity in 2010, and by 2014, the event had become the most significant holiday-shopping occasion of the year. Unfortunately, the videos of Americans misbehaving have inspired many other consumers in other countries to follow suit, with Black Friday related injuries a common occurrence among high street shoppers.
The Rise of Black Friday
In 1924, after an addition to the existing structure, the Macy’s department store in New York on Herald Square set the record as the biggest department store in the world. To celebrate, Macy’s launched the much loved Thanksgiving Parade to kick off the holiday season. Over 10,000 people watched the parade. The effect of this parade and the associated events sent customers flocking to Macy’s and other big department stores, and by the 1950s, shopping the day after Thanksgiving had become so popular nearly every retailer marked the day with big sales events. Growing numbers of people chose to stay home from work that day to shop or spend time with family.
The term Black Friday was officially coined in the 1960s, referring to the time of year when holiday shopping typically brought retailers’ numbers out of the red (operating at a loss) into the black (operating at a profit) but also led to massive traffic jams and increased crowding in city centers and stores. Historically, referring to a day of the week as “black” often had negative connotations, such as Black Thursday, the start of the Great Depression on October 24, 1929. Black Thursday was followed by Black Tuesday, the day the stock market crashed and sent the United States into an economic depression that took decades to recover from. Retailers have long since chosen to use Black Friday to refer to the increase in spending and profitability, both for businesses and the economy. Few consumers remember the Black days of despair and uncertainty in the 1920s. After all, that was nearly a hundred years ago.
The Black Friday Arms Race
For many Americans, the excitement of reading the ads as soon as they’re released, making lists, breaking out the wallets, and lining up to buy before things go out of stock is a holiday ritual. The highly-anticipated release of Black Friday sales fliers from all the big stores signifies the beginning of the Christmas season. In decades past, it was marked by consumers waking up long before dawn (or even camping overnight beforehand) to queue up in front of stores, hoping to get their hands on discounted items, many of them expensive “big ticket” products such as televisions, video game consoles, and other electronics. As online shopping surges in popularity, it means consumers must be ready to add that item to a virtual “cart” and hit buy as soon as the deals drop. Bargains sell out fast whether it’s flying off the shelf and out the door of a crowded big box store or selling out, leaving behind that sad little “sold out” icon on a website.
In 2018, the fierce competition between retailers to get consumers in their doors and logging onto their websites led to an e-commerce “arms race” of new loyalty programs, additional shopping days, new shopping technology, in-store experiences, free shipping, and many other practices meant to enhance the consumer experience. Retailers have had to accept that getting the sale was the most important thing, and where it occurred (online or physical location) is unimportant.
Customers expect free shipping no matter how much or how little they are buying, and many attribute this to Amazon’s Prime free shipping that has given most consumers the expectation of having their purchases neatly delivered to their door within 48 hours or less of clicking “buy.” Buying online and picking up in the store is a more accessible service many retailers find their customers are increasingly utilizing. Most consumers like to price-shop and compare, and this allows them to find the best prices or feel reassured they are getting the best deal, and then go pick it up the same or next day- the best of both worlds. Retailers can quickly shift stock to fulfill these buy online and pick up in-store orders.
Shopping events, apps with lots of interactivity, “pop-ups” featuring limited-edition goods, early access to sales, and using slick marketing, often including brand ambassadors or celebrities to “design” and push products are now commonplace practices among retailers to capture their share of the market. Companies like Target and Starbucks utilize apps that encourage consumers to scan their purchases by searching for coupons or playing games that give rewards.
According to the National Retail Foundation, 93% of consumers will have their technology with them on Black Friday. Using their mobile phones to track everything from stock in stores using apps like Brickseek to retailers’ apps to consult Black Friday specials and hours, they will use every tool possible to find the best deals. Mobile phones are most used for shopping, but most consumers prefer to make the actual purchases on their desktop or laptop computers.
And while Black Friday gets ever more competitive, gimmicky, and increasingly taking place online, consumers are still looking for the fundamental pillars of a robust shopping experience that should exist both in stores and online. Customers are looking for a positive shopping experience. Quality customer service is at the top of the list. Whether it’s an employee stopped in an aisle to answer a question or a chat online with a customer service rep resolving a problem with an online order, consumers want to know that their shopping needs will be met and they can trust the retailer to resolve any issues they may have. Free shipping, flexibility to buy in-store or online, hassle-free returns, ease of shopping, simple check-out and a robust review system are all essentials for a welcoming, thriving e-commerce site to keep consumers’ trust and returning business.
Even with the increasing shift to online shopping, 56% of consumers still feel that the best deals for what they want to buy are offered on Black Friday, and 44% continue to rely on the bargains offered that day for holiday purchases.
In-store shopping is still very popular on Black Friday for many consumers. They want to see products in person, avoid shipping costs, and have the option for easier returns. A whopping 45% of consumers don’t know what they are going to buy over the holiday shopping weekend, and shopping in-store is a way to get inspired.
The money spent each year on Black Friday grows. More of it is spent online as a growing number of shoppers are using their mobile devices and computers to shop. Black Friday deals to match what’s “in-store” are increasingly found online to appease the growing demand for retailers to maintain an online presence every bit as robust as their physical store locations. Foot traffic in retail stores decreased nearly 9% in 2018 from 2017, but the demand for “buy online, pick up in-store” gives retailers who have both an online and physical presence a considerable advantage.
Black Friday typically brings the biggest in-store crowds, and more in-store dollars spent, but Cyber Monday draws the bigger per-consumer spending.
Statistics show that Gen Z and millennials are the most likely demographic of shoppers to stay up all night to shop the Black Friday sales that frequently start at midnight on Thanksgiving or in the early hours of the next day.
Black Friday Favorites
Many consumers feel that that the bigger the retailer, the better the deals will be. Mass merchants and “big box stores” like Walmart, Target, and Kohls tend to be famous for in-store Black Friday shopping.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, shoppers typically hit up multiple stores as they pick intended purchases from the Black Friday ads. 45% of shoppers are often undecided on where they will shop ahead of time and often make these decisions at the last minute. This may also be a consequence of some retailers choosing to release their Black Friday specials either very shortly before or on Black Friday itself. Most consumers (59%) will go online seeking information about the Thanksgiving weekend specials, typically relying the retailer websites for information about deals and bargains. Quite a few more (52%) also use sites specifically geared towards helping consumers find and plan for shopping for the best deals, compiling all the ads, discount codes, and information in one place. Emails and social media are tied at 26% for sharing Black Friday information. Many smaller retailers will send this information out to their mailing lists or followers on social media. Millennials often look for their favorite influencers to share discount codes as well through their posts.
Amazon has dominated the Thanksgiving shopping week for many years, with its Prime subscribers enjoying free and fast shipping. When it offered its famous free shipping to all shoppers during the holidays whether or not they were a subscriber, their conversion rates skyrocketed. More consumers would complete a purchase from Amazon vs. utilizing the site to price-shop and read reviews. Expansion of Amazon operations around the world but especially in the United States is allowing them to offer same-day delivery to a growing number of consumers.
Kohl’s has opted for the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach with Amazon. They now sell Amazon smart home products and accept Amazon returns in a quest to bring traffic to their physical stores. Kohl’s locations that implemented these partnerships saw an 8.5% increase in traffic, with nearly half of the customers new to Kohl’s. This returns process is also very attractive to Amazon customers who want a returns process with less of an environmental impact than sending hundreds of thousands of tiny packages back into the transportation and logistics slipstream. Kohl’s has also found a way to bring customers in not just once, but twice during the month of November. They aligned their Cash rewards program and lots of deals for customers ahead of the Thanksgiving shopping weekend. Consumers would receive a $15.00 Kohl’s Cash coupon for every $50.00 they spent in the week before Thanksgiving. Those coupons were valid for dates of Thanksgiving shopping weekend.
And of course, there are always the classic mailed advertisements and coupons. Target dominates with their beautifully photographed catalog-style guides and printed items, usually featuring coupons or gift cards attached to entice the consumer to make a purchase. These only get more and more tempting over the Thanksgiving shopping weekend. Target’s sophisticated customer data collection allows them to send coupons and advertisements tailored to the consumer based on what they shopped for in the past. During the 2018 holiday shopping kickoff in November, we received $20.00 in Target peel-off merchandise cards affixed to slick mailing ad campaigns.
Buying in Stores vs. Buying Online on Black Friday
In our increasingly busy, frenzied lives, consumers are usually looking, for one thing, more than any other: free time. Technology exists to set the customer free from as many constraints as possible, and online shopping removes the impediment of having to drive to the retailer, find a parking spot, stand in line, and drive back home. In even medium-sized cities, even trying to drive past a retail center like a shopping mall or big box store can be a nightmare on a day like Black Friday. Highways are snarled, people are angry and impatient, and it can be a frustrating day for those who are already dreading the holidays.
Retailers who offer the flexibility to shop online or in-store are giving their customers a convenient shopping experience. They are more likely to venture into the brave new world of shopping if it’s with a familiar company with whom they’ve already built trust and loyalty.
Black Friday Shopping Habits
While consumers may spend more money on Cyber Monday, the number of shoppers is higher on Black Friday, commanding 71% of consumers, comprising more than 116 million Americans. 41% of consumers will shop Small Business Saturday, with most of those shoppers specifically targeting smaller businesses. 46% of shoppers will hit up the Cyber Monday deals to snag the online deals.
The biggest in-store shopping crowds on Black Friday are not necessarily the early morning freezing-in-line-since-midnight-yesterday shoppers anymore. Increasingly, the biggest rushes will more frequently occur mid-morning to late afternoon, as nearly 68% of consumers surveyed before the holiday indicated they would likely shop online first, many of them using Amazon and other websites to compare prices and to plan purchases based on sales, and read reviews.
As foot traffic to brick and mortar stores has decreased, retailers are trying to get people in the door during the entire Thanksgiving weekend. Many have chosen to open their doors earlier, such as at midnight on Thanksgiving, and more recently, on Thanksgiving itself. However, there are mixed reactions to the prospect of going shopping in-store on Thanksgiving.
Many retailers continue to remain closed over that holiday, and instead, offer online Black Friday deals beginning on Thanksgiving. Last year, over 48% of consumers indicated they would stay loyal to a store or retailer that remains closed over Thanksgiving and shop that retailer online instead. This allows consumers to get started “early” on the Black Friday deals while the turkey is in the oven, and get most of their Black Friday shopping done while sitting around digesting their pie and dessert, with the option to go out the next day sometime in the afternoon to see what’s happening in stores. And to entice more traditional business-hour shoppers to come into their stores, more retailers will offer Black Friday week-long sales, giving these customers the chance to come in at their leisure and still feel gratified about getting a bargain.
Customers are growing savvier and aware that not all the in-store Black Friday specials are as good of a deal as advertised. The bad press about brick-and-mortar stores only stocking a handful of discounted electronics bargains for anticipated crowds of thousands will also send more consumers online where they will know right away if something is in stock or sold out without having to stand in line. Gone too are the days when a retailer could post “Was, Now” price posting based on an outdated manufacturer’s price. Customers will often check a manufacturer’s website or compare prices between retailers. Websites like Honey.com allow consumers to see what the price has been over a very long time.
When not shopping on Amazon or other big online retailers, more and more customers are buying online and picking up their purchases in-store. Commercials advertising these services show comfortable, relaxed shoppers buying online from the comfort of their homes, and then driving to the store where a smiling employee happily loads their purchases into their vehicle as they wait. It’s no wonder consumers are increasingly avoiding the dangerous and rowdy crowds.
Shopping online and picking up in-store also addresses the high crime and theft rate that plagues neighborhoods where “porch pirates” steal packages. These bold thieves cruise neighborhoods through the entire holiday season and will steal packages right off a porch in broad daylight. When a consumer can pick up the item themselves or have it delivered to a safe storage locker, this gives them peace of mind that their purchases won’t fall into the hands of thieves.
Not all items are popular to shop for online, though. The cringe-worthy memes of American shoppers trying on their made-in-China clothing items that look nothing like the pirated photos they used to hawk their wares online have only made consumers more wary of buying clothing unseen from a brand they do not recognize. Clothing, pajamas, shoes, and certain accessories are more frequently shopped for in stores where consumers can see, touch, and often try on items.
Beauty products are also shopped for more frequently in-store. Ulta and Sephora have become known as destinations for beauty buyers. Sephora is typically associated more with higher-end “prestige brand” cosmetics while Ulta carries everything from drug-store brands to prestige, with mini “shops” selling bigger brands’ complete lines. These retailers offer the ultimate draw: their customers enjoy the ability to try on and “swatch” to their heart’s content and leave with generous samples. Friendly associates are more than happy to demonstrate the latest trends and techniques. In-store skin and hair care studios, makeovers, and highly personalized service only enhance the customer experience. Ulta’s printed catalog-style mailers and coupons keep consumers coming back in the door over and over. On Black Friday, these customers will already have an excellent idea of precisely what they want at Ulta and Sephora, and these stores are happy to offer it both in-store and online.
The idea of using scarcity or exclusivity as a marketing and selling tool is also rapidly growing in popularity. This has long fueled demand for direct-to-consumer companies, but similar tactics are also increasingly being used in more prominent retailers. Target and Kohl’s lead the way, adopting strategies like pop-up shops or selling very limited collaboration “capsule collections” by famous designers allowing consumers to buy items from these prestigious and high-end designers at big box prices. These products aren’t the same quality as pieces sold by the same designers for hundreds more, but the logo, design, brand recognition, and aesthetic drive the sale. Because these items are typically limited in number, they may not affect overall sales for a retailer so much as they bring people in the door, where they will likely not leave without buying something else as well
Black Friday Spending
The numbers are surprising on what consumers are spending their money on over the Thanksgiving shopping weekend. Nearly 78% will be indulging in self-care- shopping for themselves. These consumers are typically buying food, clothing, liquor, shoes, books, and beauty products for themselves during the holiday season.
Increasingly, consumers are also looking for the best deals on travel and experiences. This growing trend includes giving gift cards or purchasing for the recipient travel and hotel stays, meals at restaurants, all-inclusive trips and expeditions, and other socializing activities. Cards for destinations like Disney parks will enhance a trip the recipients may already be taking. In 2018, purchases for cruise travel skyrocketed, increasing from 2017 by 371% on Black Friday, and 612% on Cyber Monday. Hotel and airline travel purchases also increased dramatically from 2017. Gift cards are also popular for experiences like a massage, an hour in a sensory deprivation tank, or other self-care. Giving an employee a card for a massage vs. a gift or bouquet is a more thoughtful way to show appreciation, and these kinds of gift cards are very well-liked.
To encourage consumers to spend more, retailers offer in-store experiences related to their products or brand. Many of these are free but some, like exclusive facials at Sephora, are only offered with a minimum purchase. When a store takes the experience mindset even further and puts on an event to encourage hands-on interaction with its products, like REI’s in-house bike shop, outdoor adventures, and demonstrations, consumers will be more likely to buy. For years, many big box stores have hired employees to demonstrate samples of food products in their stores, and customers visiting a store like Costco have become accustomed to tasting something before buying.
The Retailers Who Don’t Discount
While the big retailers dominate, quietly working in the background are the direct-to-consumer manufacturers such as Allbirds, Tieks, Casper, Away, Glossier. These companies will often offer a Black Friday in-store experience, an additional bonus item or limited edition product rather than a discount. Consumers who are loyal to these brands are less likely to expect discounts. Instead, the scarcity of the items sold by these retailers is what creates the motivation to buy.
Consumers shopping these brands will line up to buy a limited-edition item, such as the various themed Tieks shoes offered for Black Friday, such as champagne-colored Tieks that were offered over the Black Friday weekend in 2016, and the Raspberry Truffle Tieks released in 2018. These high-priced ballerina flats sell out almost immediately, even with a price tag between $180-$340.00 a pair.
These smaller brands enjoy the advantage of customer loyalty and trust- closely tied with personalized service and enhanced customer service. They are the most likely to align themselves publicly with causes and pursuits that their customers care about, giving these consumers one more reason to be tirelessly devoted to their brand and product.
Black Friday Hiring
Consumer spending is an integral and vital part of the American economy, and the holiday shopping season represents the most significant chunk of that spending. To support this huge, but temporary increase in shopping and all the behind-the-scenes work that makes it possible, most retailers, transportation, distribution, warehouse, and delivery companies will hire seasonal help. After a few years of robust economic growth, unemployment is lower, and employees have more of a choice for who to work for over the holidays. Many seasonal workers are consumers themselves who are just working to make extra money to afford the gifts and purchases they want to make over the holidays. Some also want to work seasonal positions to take advantage of generous employee discounts and other perks and incentives given to attract seasonal workers.
More than 700,000 seasonal employees were hired in 2018 by big retailers such as Target, Kohls, Macy’s, UPS, FedEx, and many others.
Seasonal hiring begins earlier and earlier to ensure employees are up-to-speed and prepared for the holiday rush. Walmart typically offers its current employees extra hours rather than spend the resources hiring and training new employees for a relatively short period. Most other retailers will hire seasonal employees beginning as early as September. Many companies will offer their best performing seasonal employees regular employment.
Black Friday in July
If the craziness and big spending during the rush of shopping on Thanksgiving Day Weekend weren’t enough for retailers, many are choosing to offer even more events to draw in consumers hungry for deals.
Retailers realize that consumers are increasingly buying more for themselves and their families, and shopping for holiday gifts is a year-long occasion for some. Using the “Black Friday” phrase to describe a big seasonal sale will often get a customer’s attention fast as they associate it with rock-bottom deals and discounts. As a result, one can now find “Black Friday Style” events just about every month out of the year depending on the retailer, and “Christmas in July” style events are becoming very popular. As it always does, Amazon is leading the way with Prime Day, which is described on their website as a “two-day parade of epic deals” for Amazon Prime subscribers.
The Darker Side of Black Friday: Staying Safe
The most negative associations most consumers have today with Black Friday is the ongoing and increasing violence that occurs at stores. The shocking displays of bad behavior by grown adults towards one another, law enforcement, and store employees are a growing deterrent to shoppers. It’s almost as though it’s become traditional to revert to the same level of coping one might find during recess among students in the first grade.
To try and keep their shoppers safe, retailers implement measures such as hiring off-duty police officers, setting up crowd control barricades, and controlling access to their stores to try and prevent the stampedes and fights that injure dozens of shoppers every year. Some shoppers are resorting to pepper-spraying, tasering, and outright attacking one another in the scramble over discounted goods.
Trampling incidents are a huge risk with any crowd. Impatient people begin to push towards the objective, which on Black Friday is usually to get inside a store or the electronics and toy sections, and when people start to get knocked down, the individuals in the rear of the mob do not realize what is happening in front. They take their cue from the forward momentum, which leads to individuals towards the front of the crowd being trampled. The ugly side of human nature emerges in these situations when people are more focused on bargains than one another.
For some, the draw of a good deal is just too good to pass up. Unfortunately, the risks are not just violence within the queues or the stores. Crowded parking lots, competition for parking spots near the doors, and other potentially vexing situations lead to hot tempers and the Youtube videos of shoppers ramming into one another.
If getting run into by somebody racing for that parking spot a quarter-mile away from the door in a Walmart parking lot doesn’t seem menacing, organized crime and petty thieves alike thrive off hapless Black Friday shoppers. Pickpockets can quickly empty your purse and wallet in a crowd. Criminals increasingly lie in wait for shoppers leaving stores in dark parking lots or will target shoppers that travel from store to store, leaving their purchases in their vehicles.
Walmart is one of the most popular destinations for Black Friday shoppers, often advertising the steepest discounts and most exciting deals- but it also has the highest number of violent incidents.
Increasingly, and not surprisingly, more customers are choosing to forgo the crowds and shop online, especially with retailers whose Black Friday deals begin on Thanksgiving Day.
If you do intend to shop in-stores on Black Friday, consider the following safety tips:
- If you are in poor health and cannot stand or walk for long periods, stay home. Crowds don’t care about your walker, cane, or oxygen tank.
- Be courteous and be part of the solution. It’s ok to walk away from confrontation to defuse it.
- Plan your shopping trip as early in advance as possible before you leave the house. Prioritize based on opening hours of the stores you plan to visit, have a fallback plan for each retailer in the event the item you are going there to buy is sold out, and memorize your routes- for both driving and how to find the department within the store you want to buy from.
- When you leave the house, pack light and keep your wallet and any other possessions close to your body. Consider a cross-body bag cinched up tight or using a travel wallet that attaches around your neck and waist underneath a shirt or jacket to keep it from being cut or snatched. Pack some energy bars, hand sanitizer, and a small pack of wet wipes.
- Keep your phone out of your hands in a crowd and put it safely away in an inside pocket of your jacket or your bag. Ensure it is fully charged and you have a charging brick if you’ll be standing in a long line without an opportunity to charge it.
- Pay attention to the crowd around you. Trust your gut, and get yourself far away from a bad situation immediately if you sense there is danger. Avoid fighting over deals and bargains, and return to the store or walk with a group of other shoppers if you think somebody is following you to your car to steal your purchases.
- Once in the parking lot, get inside your car immediately and lock doors as soon as you are inside. If you are going to multiple stores, do not park in a parking lot and take a few minutes to hide your purchases before you go in. Thieves will be watching to see who is stowing away prior purchases from a store they just left. Instead, go somewhere thieves are not likely staking out, such as a gas station, to hide everything out of sight in your vehicle and then proceed to the next store.
- Stay off your phone at all times, especially when driving unless absolutely necessary to stay undistracted.
Mass shootings and attacks necessitate situational awareness to ensure the safety of yourself and anyone with you when entering a potentially dangerous situation. A good rule of thumb, when headed into a potentially volatile situation, is to utilize a tactical approach:
Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (also called OODA or Boyd’s Cycle)
Named after a brilliant military strategist, this way of using situational awareness can keep you safe in any situation by taking four steps:
- Observe events and people in the situation.
- Orientation involves processing what you are seeing, hearing, and sensing to create an assessment of the situation.
- Deciding is the phase where you use your assessment to determine what you’ll do next, and then
- Acting is the final phase, where you implement the decision. Most people jump straight to the Acting phase, and while in certain emergencies this is warranted, it’s more likely you will be part of the solution by staying calm, level-headed and not escalating any conflict with others on a day when everyone is already extremely ramped up. A new television is never worth a life or severe injury.
Black Friday is an excellent opportunity to find the best deals as long as you do your research, exercise common sense and remember that if a deal seems too good to be true, there is a chance it may very well be. With a little bit of planning, it can be a fun part of your holiday traditions, whether you’re standing in a parka outside Best Buy at 2 am, or in your fuzzy slippers and pajamas, sipping on tea and nibbling the last piece of pumpkin pie as you score a great deal on a new electronic device that will be delivered tomorrow.