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Black Friday is going to be boring this year

Black Friday isn't just a day anymore. Now, it's months in the making (Photo: Max Fischer/Pexels)

Black Friday used to be a welcome mat for the holidays. It was almost a holiday in itself, with families waking up early in the morning rife with excitement to join the gaggles of other holiday shoppers as they explored endless aisles of holiday gifts and goodies.

But not anymore.

Black Friday is no longer an event –– it’s a concept that’s becoming more and more amorphous every year.

“Black Friday isn’t actually a day,” Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing, told Modern Shipper. “Black Friday is, at least this year, it’s like six or eight weeks.”

Retailers have long tried to capitalize on the massive shopping phenomenon by offering Black Friday deals increasingly early, with many stores opening up to shoppers on Thanksgiving, but now we’re witnessing a new extreme. In fact, deals and discounts have become so spread out that Black Friday might just be boring this year.

“I think what retailers realized is that, ‘OK, if Black Friday is just a day in time, and if we’re all doing Black Friday on the same day, how do we actually differentiate?’” said Gabor.

As a result, retailers have a blurry view of when Black Friday actually begins. But at the same time, they know that in order to steal customers from the competition, they have to stand out somehow. For many, that means selling earlier.

“Promotional activity and discounting is modest and, in an effort to start the season’s shopping earlier in the year, Black Friday promotions began in earnest before Halloween in early October,” explained Marie Driscoll, managing director of luxury and fashion for Coresight Research.

Many brands are also undergoing somewhat of a cultural shift around Black Friday and Thanksgiving. Several companies have begun closing their doors entirely on those days so that their employees have time to spend with their families.

“Brands like REI have done it a couple of years –– last year, I think they even shut down their website and you couldn’t shop online. Patagonia is another one,” said Gabor. “These are examples of brands that are using their values and beliefs as a magnet so that they can attract customers who share similar values and beliefs.”

Narrow selection, wide margins

But the timing of Black Friday isn’t the only thing experiencing a metamorphosis. As retailers this year have spread out their deals and discounts, they’ve also narrowed their product selection because shortages are impeding the shipment of certain products and materials.

“With the global shipping crisis looming over holiday events this year, we expect retailers to have trouble keeping their inventory well stocked,” explained Karthik Bettadapura, CEO of DataWeave. “We have analyzed data from categories like fashion, toys and electronics and the trend is the same everywhere: a decline in availability in the last six months as well as year-over-year.”

Because delays and shortages have left retailers struggling to keep all of their products fully stocked, they aren’t fully stocking them anymore. Rather than keeping an inventory that’s wide and shallow, with lots of options but a limited supply of each product, brands are instead building stockpiles that are narrow in terms of choice but deep in terms of availability.

Read: ‘People are gonna be pulling their hair out’: Supply chain execs predict chaotic holiday peak

Read: Your guide to holiday shopping, supply chain disruption style

“I think retailers are going to have to focus on more exclusive products and maybe looking to differentiate themselves or stand out from other retailers,” explained Gabor.

She thinks that consumers should also be wary of promises from retailers in the midst of supply chain disruptions, especially when it comes to online shopping, which is where more than half plan to do their Black Friday shopping, according to data from E-Conolight. Gabor said many brands will hone in on the sale but disregard the post-sale experience, making guarantees that they often can’t keep.

For example, a retailer might promise that a product will arrive the day after the buyer purchases it in order to set itself apart from the millions of retailers that are experiencing shipping delays. But in many cases, that product won’t arrive for weeks.

“There’s never been a better time than now to just communicate authentically, honestly and clearly with customers, even though it’s the holiday season and retailers want to grab their piece of the pie,” advised Gabor.

In her view, it’s not the companies with the greatest number of sales that are benefiting the most this holiday season –– it’s the ones that are perfecting the post-sale experience and building long-term relationships with their customers.

“I think that it’s not going to be enough just to demonstrate that you sell the product,” she added. “I think that the retailers who win this holiday season are the ones who can take it all the way through to fruition, which is proving to be very, very difficult.”

Not only will supply chain disruptions lead to a rocky post-sale experience for some retailers –– many brands will also raise their prices. Inflated shipping prices are essentially unavoidable for retailers these days, and many aren’t willing to eat those costs themselves.

“While cost of goods is rising for many brands and retailers, many are passing on the increase in costs (COGS, freight, fulfillment) directly to the consumer,” said Chris Ventry, VP of consumer and retail for SSA & Co. “Coupled with a decrease in promotional discounts, we expect retailers to experience higher gross margins this holiday season.”

And it isn’t just small retailers with few resources that are passing costs along. The biggest retailers in the country are doing it too, according to price statistics from DataWeave.

“We compared the pre-Black Friday event of 2020 with 2021 to see if prices of products have increased/decreased and we found that around 50% of products on Amazon have seen a price increase while only 37% of products had seen a price decrease,” said Bettadapura. “Also at Target, we saw 50% of products had a price increase. But in contrast to Amazon, only 16% of their products had seen a price decrease. So at least during the pre-Black Friday 2021 period, prices are higher this time around.”

It’s difficult to predict whether this new version of Black Friday is here to stay, but according to Gabor, we’ve reached an inflection point.

“It’s kind of taken away some of the magic and the panache of a holiday season by making it about sales and promotions and discounts and doorbusters and things like that. And I just think that’s interesting. It makes me scratch my head and wonder what’s around the corner for the future. You know, what do consumers really want?”

Only time will tell which version of Black Friday shoppers prefer –– the hectic, one-day shopping bonanza that for so many was synonymous with the beginning of the holidays or the monthslong, hyper-commercialized retail marathon that it’s become.

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Jack Daleo

Jack is a staff writer for FreightWaves and Modern Shipper covering topics like last mile delivery and e-commerce fulfillment. He studied at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a certificate in integrated marketing communications. Previously, Jack has written for Backpacker Magazine and enjoys travel, the outdoors, and all things basketball.