With the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy having already been downgraded to "Blasé Friday" in prior years due to the continued devastation of bricks and mortar retail, it will hardly come as a surprise that today - when online spending surpassed in store purchases for the first time ever...
... due to ongoing covid lockdowns, one can officially put the time of death on one of the fondest traditions of American consumerism: The sprinting, shoving, punching grabfest that was the annual Friday midnight pilgrimage to your local mall, better known as Black Friday, is no more.
As Bloomberg notes, the sluggish in-person traffic reported in 2019 is only expected to thin out further this year, as mall-wary shoppers trade in midnight doorbusters for digital deals and the comfort of their own homes.
And while it is still shaping up to be a record year for holiday retail sales between traditional and online purchases, not everyone will be a winner. The biggest lowers: off-price department stores that eschew e-commerce to rely on the in-person “treasure hunt” experience will likely see a tough season. So will some small business without a strong online presence, though a push to buy local this year will offer some relief. But for those big retailers who’ve handily mastered online ordering and fulfillment, it’s going to be a very merry Christmas indeed.
Courtesy of Bloomberg, here are several snapshots of how Blase Friday is progressing in the US:
Big Malls, Small Crowds
As the shopping day gets underway, crowds remain thinner than normal across the U.S. A Target store in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood which in years past was packed with deal-hunting consumers, was almost empty, with a calm and peaceful scene at 9 a.m. local time. Why? Due to covid restrictions, the location that opened two hours earlier has capped customer capacity at just 50.
The store was stocked neatly with discounted Legos, sweaters for 30% off, Ghirardelli holiday chocolates and Native skincare items. Two women browsed the health-care aisle, while another grabbed a small basket for shopping - not the full-size carts Black Friday used to require.
At International Plaza and Bay Street mall in Tampa, Florida, a half-full parking lot still allowed shoppers to easily find a spot shortly after the stores opened at 9 a.m. Lindsay Grinstead, marketing and sponsorship director at the mall, said traffic has been strong since it reopened in May. New safety measures have helped the mall gain shoppers’ trust: It provided the stores with a virtual-line app that allows customers to scan a QR code and save their spot in the queue without having to physically stand in line. The mall also doubled the curbside pick-up capacity to more than 100 parking spaces. Masks are required inside the mall as well as in the stores, with some, like Hollister and Forever 21, even providing masks at their entrances.
“We have been really pleasantly surprised that people have wanted to come back out and been shopping,” Grinstead said. “I can imagine that will continue through the holiday season.”
Empty Department Stores
The busiest shopping event of the year at Macy’s Herald Square, the biggest department store in the U.S., looking like something out of the Walking Dead. In a typical year, crowds stream in through the flagship’s main entrance as TV cameras document the frenzy. In 2020, it was barely a trickle.
The massive, 2.5 million-square-foot Manhattan store is one of the worst performers in Macy’s network due to the ongoing tourism boycott of New York, with few of the international visitors and office workers it relies upon for sales. Still, Macy’s dressed up the windows to welcome those venturing out for deals on shoes and handbags. CEO Jeff Gennette even planned to be on hand to rally his staff. “I’ll be looking for happy colleagues and engaged customers,” Gennette said last week in an interview. Today, he will be hard pressed to find either.
Macy’s and its department store rivals are begging for a strong holiday after a dismal year, unfortunately it doesn't look good. With weak foot traffic at urban locations, they’ll need robust e-commerce sales to carry them through the final quarter of the year. Department stores typically get about a quarter of their annual sales in November and December.
No early shoppers
Gone are the days of massive lines in front of stores at midnight: at many big U.S. retailers, the morning crowds have been thin, if any. Joseph Feldman, senior managing director and assistant director of research at Telsey Advisory Group, visited a Best Buy and a Dick’s Sporting Goods around dawn in Westchester County, just north of New York City, and things were "quite quiet." Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, said a Best Buy he checked out in Scottsdale, Arizona, had barriers set up in the parking lot for crowd control - but no crowds.
Still, those shoppers who woke up for the event came ready to spend. “Conversion is high. Anyone out this early is buying something,” Feldman said in an email, with mainstays such as TVs and home-office equipment likely the big sellers at Best Buy, Feldman said in an interview on Bloomberg TV. At Dick’s, sportswear from Nike, Adidas and Under Armour appeared to be hot items.
“People are still focused on the main areas of fitness, home, home office, and trying to find some joy,” he said.
A Fifth of the Usual Traffic on Fifth Avenue
As Bloomberg notes, "Fifth Avenue without tourists is just a regular city sidewalk, even on Black Friday." New Yorkers going about their day seemed to outnumber those visiting stores. Case in point: the line outside the Philippine Consulate was longer than the tiny queue to get into Zara.
Despite the sense of doomed desperation permeating every storefront, the street’s cornerstones tried their best, with Saks Fifth Avenue fully adorned in Christmas decor and holiday lights to welcome the few shoppers inside. To watch the annual light show, passers-by can scan a barcode to see it virtually –- the usual in-person event didn’t happen this year. Apple set up crowd-control ropes outside its glass cube to guide people to the side entrance, but they didn’t seem needed since there wasn’t a line. Best Buy’s barricades weren’t so useful either.
Other luxury stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Louis Vuitton, decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to open early, and won’t let shoppers in until late in the morning.
Not just the US
It's not just the US that celebrates Black Friday: the official launch of the holiday shopping season begins across Europe as well, although this year it has been... complicated. With full and partial lockdowns still underway in many European countries, including England, many shops are not open. That means most Black Friday promotions are online only, presenting a logistical challenge for many retailers who have to simultaneously cope with increased online traffic while preparing to reopen stores in December post-lockdowns.
Many of Europe’s retailers have offered promotions throughout all of November rather than on Black Friday itself in a bid to spread out the demand. Others, including Marks & Spencer Group and Next, are not participating in Black Friday this year at all, arguing they offer good value all year round. Barclaycard Payments, which says it processes nearly one out of every three pounds spent in the U.K., said the volume of payments was down 16.7% at 4 p.m. local time compared to Black Friday last year.
It's even worse in France, where Black Friday has taken on a political tone with small shopkeepers complaining that government-mandated store closures are gifting market share to Amazon. The fallout has resulted in Amazon and some of France’s biggest retailers agreeing to delay Black Friday until all stores, including small operators, have reopened next month.
Big Drop in Thanksgiving Spending
While Thanksgiving Day online spending came in nearly $1 billion lower than predicted in the U.S., it still set a record, signaling retailers’ efforts to pull shopping earlier actually worked. Digital spending on Thursday totaled $5.1 billion, according to Adobe Analytics. While that’s a record for the day and a 21.5% boost year on year, it is nearly 20% below the $6 billion number the company had been predicting just one day ago.
"While yesterday was a record-breaking Thanksgiving Day with over $5 billion spent online, it didn’t come with the kind of aggressive growth rate we’ve seen with the start of the pandemic,” Taylor Schreiner, director at Adobe Digital Insights, said in an email, noting that many customers are also still waiting for Cyber Monday to pull the trigger on big-ticket items.
The silver lining: Online spending Growth
If there is one silver lining to the decimation of what was formerly a US consumerist tradition, Salesforce projected that Black Friday’s web sales will grow 18% today from a year ago to $56.5 billion. U.S. growth will be 15% and reach $11.9 billion, according to the provider of e-commerce tools. However, this will likely not be enough to offset yet another plunge in traditional, in-store spending.
Salesforce vice president Rob Garf said that the online surge could set up a shipping crunch for retailers: "We are seeing a shopping surge during Cyber Week that will challenge logistical capabilities of many retailers,” Garf said. “The winners and losers this holiday season will be defined by shipping and their ability to get gifts to the doorstep for the remainder of the holiday season."
Not everyone is optimistic however: Cowen predicts that physical-store traffic will drop 30% to 40% for the Black Friday holiday period, which is this week including Sunday, which won't be offset by stellar cyber sales growth rates which could climb 70% or even higher. Based on the firm’s store and mall observations in the early Black Friday morning hours, electronics, video game consoles, accessories and activewear were among the “better performing categories,” analyst Oliver Chen wrote in a note to clients. He reported foot traffic was busiest at Kohl’s, Target and American Eagle Outfitters.
The one thing everyone wants...
The fact that there are no crowds does not mean that there were no "must have" items this year: gaming consoles were the hot-ticket item today. After retailers saw online releases sell out within minutes in recent days, it seems that camping might be the only way to get your hands on one now - for retail prices, at least. From Norfolk, Virginia, to Denver and Salinas, California, shoppers lined up as soon as Thursday afternoon at GameStop locations - some set up tents - to get their hands on the coveted Playstation 5 and Xbox consoles, which are selling for as much as$60,000 on Ebay.
"There’s always an item, or a few items, people can’t find. The big hot item this year is Sony PlayStation 5 and Xbox from Microsoft,” Telsey's Feldman, said in a Friday morning interview on Bloomberg Surveillance. "Those are the two new items that I keep hearing people ask for, especially at Best Buy and GameStop, and you just can’t find them right now." To limit crowds, Best Buy chose to only release the newest consoles online.
Once upon a time gathering in crowds to shop was fun. Not anymore, and certainly not with the threat of an immediate arrest if you violate someone's 6-feet of social distancing space.
“In years past, I feel like Black Friday seemed like a time where people kind of hung out and got together and sort of had a little bit of a reunion,” said Jenna Lynn Pogorzelski, a retail leader at Deloitte. This year, not so much. The food courts at the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania were almost completely empty, she said, and shoppers “went into the stores they wanted to and did some browsing and then they got out pretty quickly.”
Bobby Stephens, a leader in Deloitte Digital’s retail and consumer products practice, witnessed a similar trend. Most of the in-person shopping is “with a purpose, to make a purchase specifically,” he said. “It’s not your typical browsing, get a group of people together, have brunch, walk around for several hours.”
Better luck next year.
Despite the clear death of the tradition that is Black Friday, some are still hopeful its zombie will emerge from the grave in coming years:
"I expect doorbusters to return next year,” said Poonam Goyal, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. With the virus hopefully gone and capacity limits no longer an issue, retailers will try to make the shopping day feel festive again. "Retailers will aim to strike a better balance with online and stores as they move forward."
Or maybe they won't: by November 2021, Amazon's monopoly status will be that much greater, and what little retail outlets are left will likely become fulfillment centers and warehouse for the handful of dominant retailers who have sucessfully rolled up the entire retail sector.