Black Thursday may overshadow traditional Friday shopping spree
Black Friday, the annual Super Bowl of Shopping, is facing some tough competition this year from a new challenger — Black Thursday, also known as Black Friday Eve.
North Jersey retailers are particularly concerned about having a strong start to the holiday shopping sprint because of the days — and in some cases weeks — of sales lost in October and early November stemming from power outages and damage from superstorm Sandy.
Retailers are throwing tradition to the wind in aggressively pursuing shoppers, and many are resetting their holiday launch clocks to favor night owls — consumers who want to shop on Thursday night — over the early birds who like to rise at dawn Friday for 4 a.m. door-buster specials.
“Black Friday has become the only day of the year that’s more than 24 hours. Now it starts on Thursday,” said retail consultant Jeff Green, president and chief executive officer of Jeff Green Partners in Phoenix.
Black Friday has been getting bigger. It stretches into a four-day weekend orgy of sales offers that starts on Thanksgiving, because “we have, as a retail society, trained people to be deal junkies,” said Lily Lev-Glick, who has been studying shopper behavior for more than 20 years and is the founder of Closter research firm Shopper Sense.
“We have set an expectation that gets greater and greater over time each year, that shoppers can get better and better deals,” Lev-Glick said. With the early start times, she said, retailers are creating “a race for the chase.”
Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, for the first time, will open the entire shopping center at midnight for overnight shopping. Sears, Walmart and Toys “R” Us stores in North Jersey will open at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night and Target stores will open at 9 p.m.
Driving this strategy is the fact that two demographic groups very popular with retailers — teenagers and millenials in their 20s and early 30s — love late-night, post-Thanksgiving dinner shopping.
“We’re calling it ‘Party at Midnight,’ ” said John Morris, an analyst with Toronto-based BMO Capital Markets, who covers apparel retailers. Last year, he said, teen-oriented retailers American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch experimented at several locations with midnight openings and they were so successful that they are doing them at all of their stores this year. “This is going to turn into a real holiday tradition for the teen sector,” he said.
Willowbrook is tapping into that trend. It will have disc jockeys spinning tunes in its center court, and flashing deal offers on their video screens.
Stores in North Jersey and throughout the Northeast will be going all out for a strong start to the holiday season, to make up for revenue lost because of Sandy.
For Northeast retailers, Morris said, Sandy was “the nightmare before Christmas.” But he is seeing reasons for merchants, even in this region, to be optimistic. There are five shopping weekends, and 32 shopping days (33, if you count Thanksgiving) between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, one of the longest holiday shopping seasons in recent years, and consumer spending and confidence appears to be improving, he said.
Recent surveys support that belief. A Conference Board report earlier this month showed confidence among American consumers climbed in October to its highest point since February 2008.
Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, which has 50,000 “shopper traffic counters” in stores around the world, said that in previous disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Andrew, spending “usually comes back stronger.” The storms, Martin said, “create immediate demand for replacement items, but there still is demand for some of the holiday items.”
“Sandy stole a lot of things from us, but it’s not going to steal Christmas,” Martin said.
Sandy may also trigger bigger-than-normal crowds of Thanksgiving and Black Friday deal-seekers in North Jersey. Families who lost televisions and other household goods in the storm may be especially motivated to take advantage of the holiday discounts, said Craig LaRosa, a principal at Continuum, a global design and innovation consulting firm based in Boston. “We could see a bigger bump for this weekend because of the storm,” LaRosa said.
Black Friday has remained a big event, LaRosa said, because consumers, even in this age of smart phones and online shopping, look to shopping to give them a shared social experience. Lines that form for items such as the new iPhone, or a doorbuster deal, become an event “where everybody’s chitchatting, meeting people. It’s a very social thing,” he said.
Martin and ShopperTrak are forecasting that Black Friday will draw the most shoppers, and generate the most sales, of any day during the holiday season, for the seventh consecutive year. Martin is curious as to whether Thanksgiving will steal significant numbers of shoppers from Black Friday.
“We’re interested to see if it gets any traction,” Martin said. “If it doesn’t get any traction, then I suspect we’ll see less next year. I don’t think en masse the American public is going to want to leave the Thanksgiving Day table to go shopping.”
The new pastime
LaRosa, however, sees Thanksgiving evening shopping continuing to grow.
“People are having Thanksgiving and then they’re going shopping,” he said. “If you’re not a family that’s going to be all about sports and watching the Thanksgiving games, what’s your other pastime?” Movie attendance on Thanksgiving has soared, he said, and the new post-turkey pastime, he predicts, will be shopping.
For North Jersey strip malls, the last weeks of December before Christmas tend to be busier in sales than Black Friday weekend, according to a survey by Levin Management of North Plainfield, which manages 95 retail properties, primarily supermarket-anchored strip shopping centers. The properties surveyed by Levin expect the weekend before Christmas to be their busiest time.
“This is an interesting reflection of a continuing trend, in which people are shopping closer to Christmas Day,” said Matthew Harding, president and chief operating officer of Levin.
He noted that “value-conscious consumers have been trained to wait for progressively lower pricing.” Harding said retailers are trying to reverse that trend with increasingly aggressive marketing, and more are opening on Thanksgiving night as part of that strategy.
The Thanksgiving-night openings have prompted complaints from retail workers and some consumers, who believe it is unfair to make employees skip their holiday celebrations to get stores ready for Thursday-night opening.
The petition website Change.org has seen more than 150 petitions started to ask retailers to drop plans to open on Thursday.
Big stakes for toys
The North Jersey-based retail chain that has the most riding on its Black Friday/Black Thursday game plan is Wayne-based Toys “R” Us. The chain is matching its top toy rival, Walmart, by opening at 8 p.m. on Thursday. For Toys “R” Us, being a parent’s first shopping stop on Black Friday or Thursday usually ensures it will get the largest share of their holiday toy budget.
Gerrick Johnson, a BMO Capital analyst who covers toys and leisure, said toy retailers will be competing for holiday sales that are forecast to be down 2 percent to 3 percent from last year.
“We expect another difficult and disappointing [year for toys],” Johnson said. He said there are few compelling, must-have toys this year and that “toy sales perform the weakest when we are emerging from a recession.” That’s because parents who are feeling more confident about the economy may decide to spend more on a family trip to Disney World, and less on toys, Johnson said.