Monday, December 1, 2014

Making Sense of a Shopping Lull

Are the many people who have not bothered to do any shopping over the past five days missing out?

I think that is the question that may help to explain the reports that show sluggish activity at retail on Black Friday, yesterday, and today and predict the downward trend will cut into today’s online shopping. Sales on Thanksgiving and Saturday looked like they were up from last year, but not enough to make up for the decline on the other days.

One reason the retail results are puzzling is that there were so many shoppers out at some point on Black Friday. The difference this time seemed to be that most shoppers were following a script, a preplanned sequence of stores with specific products in mind at each destination. Shoppers were trying to avoid distractions and delays so that they would not have their whole day taken up with shopping. That’s how a large number of shoppers can translate into light foot traffic in the stores, with retail workers being sent home early at the ends of their shifts.

Consumer confidence seems to be higher than the past few Christmas shopping seasons, and the mood I saw in the stores seemed to bear that out. People were in a good mood. They were feeling successful in their shopping. If they were spending less, it was not out of financial distress, but by choice or because of lower prices. Maybe the big spending of 2012 and 2013 was, in part, a way to make up for the restrained spending of the previous six years. If so, maybe that was a moment of splurging that no one ever intended to carry forward into 2014.

A Cyber Monday decline, if true, is easier to explain. There were millions of late deliveries last Christmas, with high profile media coverage of the lapses. Many of those late deliveries were for orders placed between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday. Tens of millions of other deliveries were not made until Christmas Eve and Christmas, technically not late, but late enough to cause worry. After that scare, it is easy to imagine that a few of the more cautious shoppers might want to place their online orders a week or two earlier.

My own experience of the holiday weekend couldn’t possibly be typical, but others’ reactions to it could be indicative. When I told people I would be spending most of the weekend at home, trying to catch up on my studies and housekeeping, the consensus reaction was one of envy. There weren’t any of the “Aren’t you at least going to ___” questions that I might have faced last year. Maybe, then, we have reached the point where the hustle of Thanksgiving weekend has built up beyond what most people really want. Perhaps, then, it is now the shoppers more than the non-shoppers who worry that they are missing out on something. That would explain shoppers determined to stick to a shopping plan and get home on time.

I wonder also if there is some cultural embarrassment that Black Friday, the unofficial U.S. holiday dedicated to shopping and the consumption of manufactured products, is beginning to overshadow the more conventional holiday on the day before. I counted at least six different shopping boycotts, all poorly organized and seemingly unrelated to each other, but each one getting some traction anyway. When a boycott movement gains broad support, it usually means people are looking for an excuse not to go. Even without remembering what Thanksgiving is about you could get the feeling that turning it into Black Friday Eve would not be a step forward. The pushback against this trend has been widely remarked on for at least ten years, but may now have reached the point where it means something in a commercial sense.