Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Retail in a Black Friday Funk

Looking at U.S. holiday-season retail, it is hard to separate the effects of the decline of Black Friday, a jaded post-election public, and consumer time pressure. What is clear already is that this holiday shopping season will be different.
Retailers didn’t even try to draw consumers away from the distractions of the political season. The words “Black Friday” did not appear in my mailbox until last Thursday and have popped up in my email only twice, with one mention on Monday and one on Tuesday. This is a striking turnaround from just a few years ago when it seemed that Black Friday encompassed the entire month of November. With so much hype along with a few violent deaths, it is no wonder that Black Friday lost its allure. The change became obvious last year with a stark dropoff in in-store sales on Black Friday. 
The meaning of Black Friday has changed anyway. It was the symbolic start of Christmas shopping if you look back to the 1990s, but now is seen by more shoppers as the finale of the season. Most purchases are made throughout the month of November. Any purchases these shoppers cannot make by Black Friday will be placed online no later than Cyber Monday. 
This year, though, all bets are off. Retailers are telling me that they have not yet seen detectable levels of holiday shopping traffic this season, and in my own visits to stores I haven’t seen it either. With a washout in the first half of the holiday shopping season, it would take a record-breaking second half to bring things in line with retailer expectations. Yet the almost complete absence of Black Friday hype hints that that won’t happen. The shopper sentiment I am hearing can be summed up as procrastination, a feeling along the lines of “Don’t remind me.” None of the shoppers I talk to have made any shopping plans at all, for Black Friday or otherwise. 
If that feeling abruptly changes during the Thanksgiving holiday, we could see the biggest Black Friday ever. If not, Christmas shopping this year might consist of shoppers shopping on their lunch hours and taking home just enough socks, sweaters, and games to get by. After we have a chance to see Black Friday retail traffic, we may get a clearer idea of where this shopping season is heading.