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Why Are Black Friday Sales Still Newsworthy?

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I was surprised on Sunday morning to get a call from a San Francisco news radio program producer to see if I wanted to comment on the state of Black Friday sales. My first thought was, “why are we talking about this?” The producer provided the answer: Seattle-based retailer REI had made the national news by declaring that it was making Black Friday an employee holiday, “forever”.

Retail watchers will know that REI first made such a move in 2015, as a response to a truly regrettable decision by other retailers to open their stores on Thanksgiving Day in order to beat the competition in offering consumers hot deals. As far back as 2012, RSR called a foul on this move: “Black Friday has been starting earlier and earlier in some Cold War-like race to capture shoppers, culminating this year with Walmart and Target especially encroaching on the last sacred, relatively non-commercial American holiday, Thanksgiving.

But in 2013, we predicted the waning of Black Friday’s importance in retailers’ annual campaigns:

“… the biggest issue, at least as far as the future of the retail industry is concerned, is that the whole notion of a ‘physical’ shopping extravaganza has become passé. One reason for that is that the deals aren’t really special. PC World magazine <reported that>: ‘Black Friday as the start date for holiday sales is gone. And that isn’t just because a few stores are opening after dinner on Thanksgiving. Go to the sites for Best Buy, Target, or Walmart right now, and you can view every deal that will be available on Black Friday. In fact, Target’s deals started on November 24, and Walmart’s deals began even earlier.’”

The COVID Effect

Like so much else in the world of retail, ‘twas Covid killed the Beast (with apologies to the classic movie King Kong!). In 2020, the mainstream press started publishing obituaries for Black Friday. For example, on in October 2020, financial news network CNBC reported that:

“Black Friday has been losing its clout for years. The coronavirus pandemic could be what finishes it…. (In recent years) Black Friday’s importance has faded. More retailers have offered similar sales online, making it possible for shoppers to browse and buy from their couch or on their smartphone rather than having to camp out in a Best Buy parking lot, or cut through thick crowds at the mall. In the midst of a global health crisis, shoppers have even more reason to avoid long lines to snag a deep discount on a smartwatch, boots or a Nintendo Switch…. Some 64% of consumers said they are less inclined to shop on Black Friday than they were a few years ago, according to a survey of more than 1,500 consumers by Accenture. Nearly 60% said they had also lost interest in shopping on Cyber Monday. Those numbers have risen from 55% and 47%, respectively, from last year.”

And so in 2020, we concluded that:

As consumers for one reason or another adopt new ways of shopping, the importance of going to a particular place on a particular day to shop deal prices has diminished sharply. That is why retailers like Best Buy, Home Depot, Amazon, and Target are all offering hot deals to consumers whenever it suits them, for example, Target’s ‘Deal Days’ or Amazon’s ‘Prime Day’…. it also means that the pandemic has accelerated the demise of Black Friday as a litmus test for how the holiday season will play out.”

The Race To Virtue

Here we are in 2022, a full 10 years after Walmart, Target, and others had the poor taste to ruin employees’ Thanksgiving Day by jump starting their Black Friday events on Thursday afternoon, all in the name of beating their competition in grabbing holiday sales. Retail is slow to change, but thank you, Amazon!

Now REI is claiming the moral high ground and appealing to people’s better angels by making the day after Thanksgiving a holiday and paying its employees to spend it outside with a program the company calls “Opt Outside”– and by making the tradition permanent. In a statement to the media, REI CEO Eric Artz said:

Opt Outside has always been about prioritizing the experience of our employees, choosing the benefits of time outside over a day of consumption and sales,” “When we first introduced this movement, it was considered revolutionary for a retail brand, but we felt it was the right thing to do for our members and employees.”

It’s RSR’s take that this move is not so much about saying goodbye to a worn-out practice as it is another indicator of a new trend that will eventually take retail by storm. Let’s call it “the race to virtue” – acting in ways that highlight retailers’ commitments to their employees, communities, and the environment. Another really notable example is the recent move by sportswear brand Patagonia’s owner, Yvon Chouinard, who publicly donated all his voting stock to the Patagonia Purpose Trust. In a statement, Chouinard stated:

“100% of the company’s voting stock transfers to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, created to protect the company’s values; and 100% of the nonvoting stock had been given to the Holdfast Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature.”

CNN got it half right in its coverage of the REI move that “… the tide has shifted against Black Friday and it’s been losing relevance, especially among younger Millennial and Gen Z consumers who may not feel compelled to wake up at the crack of dawn the day after Thanksgiving to stand outside of stores hoping to grab a blender or flatscreen TV at 60% off.” That’s probably true, but the new generation is also pressuring retailers to adopt sustainable practices, and to compensate their employees with fair wages and decent benefits – in other words, to be good citizens.

The problem for retailers will be that they won’t be given a decade to get behind these challenges.

So, when the CBS newsman asked me if it is game-over for Black Friday, my response was, “it SHOULD be…!” And that’s just the start.


Newsletter Articles October 11, 2022
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