Saturday, November 25, 2017

Scenes From a Muted Black Friday

I am not seeing anything in my local area, a sprawling suburban area in Pennsylvania, that suggests that the 15-year trend toward earlier, smaller, and quieter Christmas shopping is slowing down. I was out all morning yesterday. Traffic was muted. Some stores were busy, but shoppers were not spending heavily and I never saw a checkout line longer than two shoppers. Other stores were quieter than a normal Saturday. In one shopping center parking lot, the only store that had drawn a lot of cars was a small mid-market department store. In another, the supermarket, warehouse club, and pet store were busy, but there was not much going on at the other 30 stores.

The busiest store I went into was Barnes & Noble. It was crowded enough to make for uncomfortable shopping, but the number of customers checking out was not enough to keep the cashiers busy. I was there to visit the record department, and that continues to be a hit-or-miss proposition. I found the the new Yes album on its release day, and this year’s Styx and Alice Cooper albums, out of stock on an earlier visit, were back in stock — but all three titles were stocked in single copies only, which means that anyone who went to look for them for the rest of the weekend was out of luck. Barnes & Noble’s survival is an annual question, but the store traffic I saw seemed to say that it can expect an above-average season, probably strong enough to keep it going another year. Bookstores in general may benefit from the slow trend toward smaller and less expensive Christmas gifts.

I only drove past Toys ‘R’ Us without a proper chance to view its parking lot, but that retailer is probably the biggest worry at U.S. retail this holiday season. It had been counting on an above-average season to give it a chance to survive bankruptcy, but reports on the early part of the Christmas shopping season suggested that toy sales in general, including Toys ‘R’ Us, were down about 10 percent from last year. The saving grace may be found in reports that online orders at Toys ‘R’ Us were up substantially, which I think means a 10 to 15 percent increase from a year ago. The late online orders can still arrive Monday and through next week, and that could make or break the season. It seems plausible, then, that even if Toys ‘R’ Us has to close all of its stores, it could emerge from bankruptcy on the basis of its web store and a limited number of seasonal pop-up stores.

Published accounts of retailer sentiment say that the lower sales volume is not as bad as it sounds. Retailers say they have been careful not to overstock, which means that much of what they sell will be at regular price or slight discounts. We may not see the storewide deep discounts that sometimes arrive around December 10, and sometimes on December 26. Deep discounts may be a way for a retailer to salvage a weak season, but there is no profit in it. Any retailer would rather have a quiet season in which it makes a profit on every item it sells.

Seasonal hiring has also been lower than usual, with Walmart and others saying they would not hire any seasonal workers for their stores. In my shopping I have seen more than a few seasonal workers being trained, which leads me to think stores are hiring extra workers just for one or two weeks.

I came home with a few good finds myself, which included exercise gear and small kitchen appliances. In total I saved around $60 compared to everyday prices, but in economic terms, that’s not necessarily reward enough to get someone to spend half a day shopping. The shopping experience has to be fun, or people will find reasons to avoid it. The news of multiple incidents of in-store violence, despite the smallest crowds in two decades, may persuade the average shopper that the Don’t Buy Anything movement is on to something and the best Black Friday strategy is the one that involves staying home.