Inside This Issue - Opinion
The many myths of Black Friday
December 10th, 2012
by David Pinto, Editor
Of all the myths surrounding the mass retailing community, the most enduring, and unendurable, are those built around Black Friday.
Among all the fanciful reasons to romanticize retailing in America, the fable that Black Friday matters diminishes both the retailing community and the consumers who participate in and perpetuate the event.
In the interests of clarification and the opportunity to perform a public service, then, what follows are some compelling reasons to discount the importance of Black Friday — and the aura surrounding it.
Myth No. 1: Black Friday is a real event. More specifically, it is viewed by the consumer press, with increasing insistence, that the day following Thanksgiving marks that moment during the year when all retailers turn a profit. It’s always the day following Thanksgiving, no matter when in November Thanksgiving falls. And the moment, in theory, embraces the entire retailing community — including even those companies that ultimately go on to report a loss for the fiscal year that most often ends two months after Black Friday. Simply put, in terms of retail profitability there is no Black Friday.
Myth No. 2: The earlier doors open, the more shopping gets done. This year, more retailers than ever opened their doors late on Thanksgiving Day, often because, in an industry with many followers following few leaders, the competition announced an expanded opening schedule. What happened this year, regardless of published reports, is that consumers often shopped through the night — then stayed home on Black Friday. Point is, proving the wisdom of expanded store hours around Black Friday is very difficult — and fails to consider the costs of opening stores, restocking shelves, and handling the uneven customer surges that frequently accompany expanded hours. Indeed, the complaint most often voiced among store employees in the aftermath of this year’s Black Friday event was the feast-or-famine gripe: Stores, empty one minute, were overflowing with often disgruntled customers the next, customers who either couldn’t locate the items they came to buy or could not find a store employee willing or able to help them.
Myth No. 3: Black Friday, as an event, makes a significant difference in holiday sales. Here again, this is a statistic that is difficult to measure and impossible to prove. The reason consumers like Black Friday is the same reason they like shopping at Costco all year: They never know what they’ll find. The unhappy corollary is that, when they think they’ve found a bargain they’ll often buy it — whether or not they really want it.
Myth No. 4: Black Friday often makes or breaks the holiday shopping season — and equally often, for that matter, the entire year. This year Thanksgiving came early, giving consumers 33 shopping days between that holiday and Christmas. Those extra days will ultimately prove to have been more important to sales than the extra shopping hours retailers gave their customers on or around Black Friday.
Myth No. 5: Those organizations that confirm total retail sales results for last year’s holiday shopping season, often down a tenth of a percentage point or, even more startling, predict final holiday sales for the current year (with equal disregard for the placing of percentage points), know what they’re doing. Forecasting sales isn’t all that easy — and the organization whose reports are quoted most frequently offers no rationale for its prediction. Nor does it offer a definition of the retail community it is measuring. That being the case, any forecast works — at least for those gullible enough to disseminate, print or believe it. So the editors at MMR are boldly forecasting that sales for the 33-day period between Thanksgiving and Christmas will increase 5.3% — give or take.
Now, having exploded the most misdirected myths surrounding Black Friday, we’ll go on to confirm two basic truths. The first, confirmed anew over the weekend following Thanksgiving, is that consumers like to shop. They like to visit stores, shop online, and increasingly do both — sometimes together. This year, largely because Target and other mass retailers told consumers they would match any price offered by any retailer, comparison shopping became more common. Thus encouraged to compare, consumers quickly got comfortable using their smartphones to compare prices in the store — and brick-and-mortar retailers came out well.
Finally, initial indications are that the economy is finally improving, the consumer is more optimistic about the future, and Christmas 2012 will be a considerable success — with knowledgeable sources forecasting that sales for the holiday season will increase by a respectable ... 5.2%. Or so say the experts.