Black Friday’s early arrival might not pay off for retailers
Duane Marsteller/The Tennessean
Retailers’ efforts to boost holiday sales by launching Black Friday deals earlier on Thanksgiving might end up costing them in the end, experts say.
While the earlier openings drew record crowds to stores on Thanksgiving night, those shoppers bought things that they likely would have purchased on Black Friday anyway. And consumers focused on heavily discounted items wound up saving more of their holiday spending budgets for online shopping, further eroding brick-and-mortar retailers’ profits.
That has analysts calling it a so-so start to the crucial holiday shopping season, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of retailers’ annual sales.
“The Black Friday euphoria was no greater than what the majority of retailers experienced last year,” Deutsche Bank analyst Charles Grom said in a research note. “While we believe Black Friday will ultimately be a success for many of our retailers, we do not believe it will be a game-changer.”
In all, Americans spent $59.1 billion in stores and online during the Thursday-Sunday weekend, up 12.8 percent from the previous year, the trade association said.
Black Friday retail sales actually fell 1.8 percent from a year ago, despite a 3.5 percent increase in foot traffic, research firm ShopperTrak said.
Many of the weekend’s biggest sales were pulled forward to Thanksgiving night, with many retailers opening their doors as early as 8 p.m. A record 35.4 million Americans shopped on Thanksgiving, according to a National Retail Federation survey.
Two Middle Tennessee-based retailers — Cracker Barrel Old Country Store of Lebanon and Tractor Supply Co. of Brentwood — declined to discuss their weekend sales performances. Goodlettsville-based Dollar General and Genesco, the Nashville owner of Journeys, Lids and Johnston & Murphy, did not immediately return messages Monday.
Not all analysts were so bleak about the weekend.
This year’s early earlier start on Thanksgiving was “a resounding success,” said Steven Posavac, a Vanderbilt University marketing professor. “There are a lot of consumers who really like deals, and they were there when the stores opened. More people shopped and spent more money.”
Much of that spending was on “doorbusters,” or heavily discounted items often sold below cost in a bid to lure shoppers. Retailers typically lose money on those sales, hoping to offset that through sales of more-profitable items.
One retail expert said there was too little of that happening during the long holiday weekend, putting further pressure on profit margins.
“People came in for the doorbusters and left without buying much of anything else,” said Jeff Green, a retail consultant in Phoenix. “Those generate sales but not profits. Those doorbusters are what sold in those (Thanksgiving) hours, and retailers seemed to have spent a lot in time, effort and money on them.”
The earlier openings also turned off some employees and shoppers, prompting threats of labor disruptions and boycotts that failed to materialize during the weekend.
Both Green and Posavac said they expect the earlier-is-better trend to continue, at least for Thanksgiving/Black Friday. “Encroaching on Christmas would provoke so much backlash and PR problems that I don’t see it happening,” Posavac said.
Online sales’ rise continues squeeze
The steady rise in online shopping continues to squeeze traditional retailers. Research firm comScore said online sales on Thanksgiving Day, typically a slow online shopping day, jumped by 32 percent over last year to $633 million. Black Friday online sales rose by 26 percent to $1.04 billion, the first time they have surpassed $1 billion on the day after Thanksgiving.
Shoppers were expected to spend an additional $1.5 billion on Cyber Monday. Midway through the day, sales were running nearly 26 percent ahead of last year’s pace, according to online sales tracker IBM Benchmark.
Despite the strong start to the holiday shopping season, experts cautioned that it was just that: a start.
While Black Friday is the single busiest shopping day, the next four all occur in the 10 days leading up to Christmas, ShopperTrak said. All are on weekends, five of which occur between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year instead of the usual four because of a calendar quirk.
Green estimates the extra time will boost holiday sales by 1 to 2 percentage points, or up to half of the 4.1-percent gain the retail federation is projecting over last year. But factors such as weather, the success of “fiscal cliff” negotiations and consumer confidence also will play a role in this season’s success, he said.
“I think the weekend before Christmas could actually be slower than most people expect,” Green said. “Inventory will be low so prices will be high, and retailers won’t have that much incentive to discount anyway.”