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The term “Black Friday” is a familiar part of the holiday shopping season, with retailers going to great lengths to capture shoppers’ attention right after Thanksgiving. The term has been in use for at least 50 years, but originally it was internal to the retail industry; it was this day that began the all-important holiday shopping season, driving retailer P&Ls into the black.

Starting in the late 80s, the news media began using the term and pointing to that day as the “busiest shopping day of the year.” That claim wasn’t actually true until 2003; in prior years the Saturday before Christmas was usually the busiest day. Since 2003 however, it’s taken over as the single busiest shopping day, driven by the massive promotions and hype surrounding it.

Recent years have seen Black Friday openings occur earlier and earlier—from 5 a.m. to 4 a.m. to midnight. This year three of the big retailers (Walmart, Target and Toys R Us) plan to open Thursday afternoon. Next year they may open at noon, and finally just stay open all day.

What’s more likely to happen is that the growth of online shopping will take the wind out of these ever-earlier promotions. Why leave the couch and that football game to head out shopping when I can log on and load up? Of course, retailers will take some time to adapt to this. Oneupsmanship comes more readily than game-changing tactics. Change will come, but not until shoppers start voting differently with their wallets.

The question is what these outrageous, unsustainable but expanding promotions actually do? It’s not that shoppers are clamoring to go out at midnight, or miss out on family time to get started spending. And from the retailer perspective, the massive discounts required to be “Black Friday worthy” aren't doing anything to boost margins.

This is a lot like the problem supermarkets have with free turkey promotions; it may work for the first couple of players, but once it’s a cost-of-entry move no one wins. It’s next to impossible to get out after the first time though: shoppers expect it, and no one wants to start out the holiday with negative comps from last year. One could add double coupons to this list as well, although most retailers have managed to claw their way out of that briar patch, but not without some severe pain and confusion.

Still, there is the looming question of benefit, both to shopper and retailer. A few folks may come away feeling good, but the vast majority likely had some major disappointments when they weren’t one of the first five people in the door. And that’s assuming no one is injured in the process, an uncommon—but not unheard of—scenario. Assaults, arrests and other associated mayhem have become part of the spectacle. There’s nothing like in-store video of shoppers whacking each over the head to bring the holiday spirit to life.

Shopping isn’t what is used to be, and we don’t really know what it will be like going forward. It’s unlikely that the expansion of Black Friday will go on much longer—at this rate the next step may just be to cancel Thanksgiving altogether. But the race-to-the-bottom discounting practices are running out of room as well.

The game needs to change soon. We can either wait for shoppers to abandon the Black Friday hype, or we can lead the way with value, service and a sustainable approach that serves shopper and retailer alike. Do that right, and it won’t take till the last week of November to get into the black.

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Who's Minding the Store?

Latest posts by Jeff Weidauer
Jeff Weidauer
Jeff Weidauer is vice president of marketing and strategy for Vestcom, a provider of integrated shopper marketing solutions. With over 30 years of retail experience, Jeff is a prominent speaker, writer and expert source to retailers, brands and media on shopper marketing and the evolving retail industry.
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