What retailers can do about Black Friday

It’s their own fault. As forecasts predict declining sales on Black Friday this week, the retailers only have themselves to blame. What was once considered a special event – a social one, even – has been diluted by sales before and after the day, while online sales continue to rise.

Based on a survey by retail consultancy WSL Strategic Retail, only 29% of women (the primary audience for Black Friday) intend to shop that day.

Now that doesn’t mean retailers are going in the tank that day. Black Friday will still exist, but it may never be the special day that it once was. The impact of online shopping is one reason, with 33% of women saying they will shop online (including 71% of Millennial women), which is simply the way of the world now.

Black Friday
Improve the experience and Black Friday may yet return.

The problem for major retailers is that a vast majority of those online shoppers will head over to Amazon, the single biggest threat to the brick and mortar stores that have long been the bedrock of holiday shopping.

But it was the retailers’ own greed that has done them in. In the rush to claim as much space in the holiday shopping market, retailers began Black Friday earlier and earlier. (That’s why our own senior brand strategist, Corbin Rusch, applauded REI for its no Black Friday promotion.)

In fact, one of the reasons why women in the WSL survey said they wouldn’t shop on Black Friday is because sales aren’t as good as they used to be (73%) and, more importantly, because sales are just as good before and after Thanksgiving (78%).

As a whole, retailers may make out OK this holiday season, although I suspect Amazon is going to eat up a large chunk of that market share.

How to fix Black Friday.

So what’s a retailer to do? For one, retailers need to stop trying to “out open” each other by pushing back the clock further and further until the sales start on Halloween.

For another, they need to face the biggest problem in retail: The lack of brand identity for the individual chains and brick and mortar shopping itself.

Black Friday has long focused solely on sales, getting the best price for a gift. That trigger has lost its impact now that sales start when the kids are trick and treating and last until Christmas Eve.

Instead, to re-build the category of Black Friday, retailers need to highlight the fun of the event itself. The social interaction (even though sometimes they lead to fights) should be improved as a whole so that shoppers feel like they are having fun.

Right now, Black Friday feels worthless because you fight crowds for prices shoppers can get elsewhere and at another time. But the day used to be something a little bit exciting. Market the day, not the low prices.

REI Black Friday a goner

REI Black Friday campaign is a mistake.

I have never minced my words when it comes to my distain over the Black Friday hoopla that happens each year or that I was pleased as punch to report that sales were down by 11% last year.

That’s why I am surprised by my general chagrin towards the REI Black Friday campaign, #OptOutside, and it’s zealous crusade against Black Friday.

REI Black Friday
The REI Black Friday campaign is a missed opportunity.

While I dislike Black Friday and its cultural significance, I recognize that it is a powerful tool to sell. Actually, it’s strong enough to equate to 10% of yearly sales for REI.

Which leaves me dumbfounded. What’s the point in REI closing up shop for the night?

The REI Black Friday strike is a stab too far.

It’s always important for brands to be different than the competition, otherwise you don’t present a real choice to your audience. But it’s ludicrous to say “no” to Black Friday shopping when it’s such a powerful tool, is it not?

If REI isn’t fond of the midnight shopping frenzy (I am not either, for that matter), then why not operate with normal hours instead? Instead, “REI will have no Black Friday promotions and won’t process any online orders until Saturday. Just a small handful of its approximately 12,000 employees will be on call, while the rest get a paid day off.”

REI Black Friday could exist.

Here is my biggest complaint with the REI Black Friday campaign: REI is alienating it’s loyal customers.

When you think about the kind of person that shops at REI, a specific image and ideal comes to mind. These folks thrive on being active and enjoying the outdoors. The mindset of REI should not be one of telling customers to “#OptOutside” but, rather, to remind its customers of the goods they can use, which REI sells, while being outside this holiday season.

Recognize your customers, REI. Don’t pander to the general public. The REI Black Friday campaign is not your style and it’s not your place in the market.

Black Friday was a bust

Now that the numbers are trickling in concerning Black Friday, a verdict can be rendered: Black Friday was a bust.

Sales were down 11% on Black Friday, which doesn’t come as that big of a surprise considering retailers really opened up the sales season earlier in the week. That strategy basically extended the but also made it less urgent (and special) for shoppers who would normally wait for stores to open at midnight. More than 30% of Black Friday shopping, according to Shopkick, was done in the week ahead.

What does this all mean for retailers? Well, they have killed Black Friday, something I wouldn’t mind seeing die anyway. But while forecasts say holiday shopping overall should still be strong (mainly because gas prices are so low), there are dangers retailers will be facing in the coming years.

More Black Fridays may look like this.
More Black Fridays may look like this.

For one thing, the reason retailers loved Black Friday so much was because those shoppers usually didn’t just buy what they had planned ahead of time. There is a greater number of impulse buys on Black Friday. Now, as consumers have become savvier (shopping online, avoiding the crowds for earlier shopping or later shopping), those impulse buys are left on the shelves.

In addition, to recoup lost sales during Black Friday, I can see retailers discounting even more in the coming weeks. There will be a blood bath over trying to get the other 50% of shoppers (by some estimates) who still haven’t bought a thing.

That will lead to shoppers becoming even savvier. They will understand that the Black Friday is a ruse and, if they wait, they can find better deals in December. That means lower margins for retailers.

I don’t expect the final numbers of this season to be too worrisome, but the shortsightedness of retailers will have repercussions in future years. The holiday season will always be the high point for retailers, but I suspect they will find sales being diluted over time and the market leaders will become the default choices.

Retail is a cutthroat business and there are few industries that follow market leaders into battle like it does. But it has crossed the Rubicon and will never be able to go back.

Black Friday is now Black Week

Now that I’ve touted the idea of Black Friday ruining Thanksgiving, let’s look at the concept from a strategic point of view.

From a strictly business perspective, the move by many retailers to start Black Friday earlier in the week is a land grab for more sales. Walmart, for example, is already in Black Friday sales mode and many other retailers are copying the retail giant.

To me, this is clearly a mistake. The appeal of Black Friday isn’t really the sales or bargains. It is the event. It is (or was) an event that told shoppers that they are savvy and fun, even if the whole idea seems crazy to me.

Now, if you go on Black Friday (especially if you go when the doors first open), you feel stupid. The special appeal of the shopping day is now irrelevant, and I think retailers (over time) are going to regret it.

Here’s my thinking: The shopper will now have more options, meaning online enters into the equation more than ever and shoppers have more time to pick out who they want to shop at because they have a week to do so.

Will we see this anymore?
Will we see this anymore?

For the retail industry as a whole, I guess it makes sense. (Watch for reports that spending was up, which has more to do with the low price of gas – extra money in the pocket – than this strategy.) But not for the individual competitors who decided to play defense once Walmart moved into the longer time frame. Those retailers just don’t want to be shut out.

But the overload of purchases on Black Friday will diminish. There’s simply no reason to wake up at 4 am, stand in line, storm the store and spend all your shopping money at one (or two) spots.

The retail industry is extremely competitive, which is why, when one retailer makes a move, everyone follows. But now there is an opportunity for a large retailer (it has to be one that has some preference) to own Black Friday again.

I don’t know if eventually someone will grab that opportunity because it’s an industry that has a hard time with differentiation. But the opportunity will be there for the taking. The urgency is now gone and the spending dollars will even out among the retailers. However, some will lament that Black Friday has now become Black Week.

Black Friday isn’t a holiday

Thanksgiving is next week and I can’t wait. Call me an oddball, but it’s my favorite holiday of the year. I can’t wait to get my entire family back together under one roof. This year is going to be a particularly sweet one as we’ll be up to 20 visitors, coming from Alaska, New Jersey and Florida. It’ll be a year to remember.

Yet, as is what comes with the ever-present balance of life, what’s very good is followed by the bad. And so, I’d like to rant a little about that.

Let it be known, then, that I detest Black Friday.

Who wants to join this horde?
Who wants to join this horde?

Hear this: The wretched day after Thanksgiving is not a holiday – and neither is Thanksgiving night. I can’t stand the talk amongst folks considering it to be one, either. Call me a cynic, but the day (and night before) represents what’s worst about America – from stores opening at midnight to customers trampling upon each other (sometimes to death) to reach the cheapest 50-inch HDTV first – I frankly, can do without all of it.

As we approach my favorite time of the year, a twinge of resentment resides in my heart over the day that is to follow. I wish that Thanksgiving could come and that families would sit together at the table after their meals, instead of rushing off to wait in lines to buy stuff.

Maybe this blog can help to change a few minds about doing that, too. I do hope so.