As Black Friday is around the corner, David Ian Gray, founder and strategist at national retail advisory DIG360, discusses retail difficulties, consumer disappointments, how holiday deals are overwhelming retail employees, and the future for Black Friday and holiday retail in Canada. Gray has been tracking Black Friday behaviours of consumers and retailers since 2010.
Gray says the Black Friday theme kicks off over two months of deals starting at the end of October, continuing through Black Friday weekend into Cyber Monday and on through the end of December.
“This spreading-out of sales over a longer period of time has been occurring for some time, with November and December being the key to fiscal success of many, but not all, retailers.”. However, deals for this season may not be what consumers are expecting.
“I do not think consumers are going to see anything shockingly different from the past few years, it is a pretty entrenched event. For example, while the day of Black Friday is very important – it is really Black Friday month,” says Gray.
“However, some retailers who might struggle to gain footsteps and eyeballs those big promo days have been stepping back from Black Friday. This enables them to give customers and staff a breather from the noise. Downplaying the hype enables smoother sales throughout the holiday season. For those, incremental revenues foregone are offset by direct and incremental cost savings from reducing complexities.”
Soaring Black Friday expectations, are Canadians expecting too much?
Gray says consumers will see lots of deals in flyers, windows and airwaves, social feeds and inboxes. Mainstream media runs countless shopping stories. However, retailers are going to limit overall discounts and offer a smaller set of feature items at a discounted price. He says, “consumers are likely to see discounted items on electronics, toys, winter sports gear, clothing, and shoes and so on – but might be just as disappointed as they have been in the past.
“In the past five years or so, cynical shoppers would report in our post Black Friday survey they were disappointed. It’s about expectations. I think they pick up that there are going to be these huge deals and then they go out and the deals are not that different from what they were seeing before or there is no sale for what they want. So consumers often say ‘Yeah we did it, we bought some stuff – but, meh.”
A Little History – Did We Create A Monster?
Black Friday was adopted by Canadian retailers around 2009. “Our retailers saw the optics of US cross-border Black Friday shopping for years prior. Media would be covering cars from Canada lined up to go to the US for Black Friday deals – that was the big Canadian story. However, Canadians had Boxing Day, which is a great clearance day, as it falls after the chance to sell through Christmas. Why cannibalize our clearance date?”
Then the financial crisis hit, and desperate US-based big box chains mandated their Canadian divisions to run Black Friday sales. “The event promoted earlier shopping for the entire industry. Once a few started, more and more FOMO occurred. It became an addiction for retail and shoppers are clever learners. It took about three or four years to plateau here. In those good economic times, we saw Boxing Day maintain its sales status and the assumption was we got shoppers opening wallets sooner. Cynical leaders would sit out at their own peril.
Gray says around 2005, “The US industry group representing ‘pure play’ online sellers, a fairly new phenomenon, created Cyber Monday, to generate their own non-store event. This was subsequently co-opted by retailers with e-commerce channels, which simply extends Black Friday weekend by another day, with just a new name”.
The day after kicks off the cycle of Holiday gift shopping, followed by Boxing Day and Boxing Week, resulting in different themes in an ongoing promotional cycle starting as early as October through the end of the year. Last season, Gray noted more promotions through January, suggesting maybe a new normal to a later end to the selling season.
Meanwhile, consumers have not led but have been adapting to these retailer changes. “We know from our research that about half of Canadians are not interested in Black Friday promotions, often the same ones who avoid peak crowds or other heavy promotional periods. This year might be a bit different, if more are driven to seeking deals out of financial need.”
Gray says, “consumers are good at gaming systems. They believe the retailers will keep discounting, so they wait, increasingly disappointed. Those most engaged in the sport of bargain-hunting continue to compare prices after buying and will return items if they subsequently find a better deal, adding to the returns challenge.” He explains that “retailers have woken to the fact they have created a monster – by creating epic peaks and valleys of demand and a relentless pressure to discount.” Even those who try to avoid price-competing are nonetheless swept up in the dynamics of comparative pricing.
Retailers have told shoppers to expect more, all the while the business is trying to protect margins. Others find they are not willing to offer deep discounts, so why spend energy there. Gray explains, “spiky traffic put strains on systems, inventory and most importantly, on staff. And, in 2023, taking care of staff has added importance with the challenges to keep workers – in-store and in warehouses. So, some previous active around Black Friday are promoting smaller sales, spread over time, with less hype”. Gray says some US retailers, such as REI, are seeing an opportunity to skip out on Black Friday and promote the move as a responsible, more sustainable one.
Black Friday and Wellness and Support for Retail Employees
Peak days like Black Friday and Boxing Day can be exhausting for employees. Some actively compete on ‘owning’ those days. However, Gray says more retailers are choosing to improve the employee experience and to provide an incrementally calmer pace than the frenzied door-crasher moments.
“Some US retailers are communicating they are dialling it down and giving their customers and staff a break. It is good PR to say ‘we want our employees to have this (Thanksgiving) holiday with their families’ and I think that is great – and that message is one that is cutting through the media clutter”.
Media is reporting front-line staff shortages, rising store theft and abusive customer incidents. Having promotions spread out like retailers are doing is helping calm down the operation without hurting the business. “Employees feel the strain of the holiday season, with many of them choosing not to come to work due to the difficulty and need to prioritise their own wellness and experience,” he says.
Gray says retailers will have a master plan for this Black Friday. That could mean a minimalist one – a legitimate strategy, especially for independents. Those more active will have made predictions as early as May. Retailers need to know what items are going to be in high demand and work with vendors on feature items.
In addition, he notes that “marketing must be planned and timed with feature merchandise and seasonal staff added and trained for the higher demand days. If they don’t have enough stock, or have too little or if they will need to hire more front-line or warehouse staff – getting these wrong can dent the bottom line.”
“You also don’t want to overcommit to avoid downsides. So, it is about building flexibility. It’s not bad to have those core ingredients locked down. But I think they shouldn’t get caught up in the hype cycle themselves.”
Gray notes this sales season will share much in common with last year; however, he expects some differences in 2023. “These set up for a greater variance in retail winners and losers. That is over and above the fact these events benefit the mass merchants and bigger advertisers, while independent brands struggle to be seen” he says.
Below are six points Gray points out:
- The economy has changed. “Low consumer confidence is coming from a confluence of stagnation, high debt coupled with high interest rates, and price inflation. While some wages are rising, there is a real or perceived threat of lower disposable income. We have not had this in almost a generation. Will this mean buying less for oneself? Or shifting to cheaper options? Or turning more of us into bargain hunters?
- Budget consciousness is also impacting retailers. “A real concern is that of product returns, which spike at this time, particularly in January. Let’s see if any fresh approaches emerge. Advertising is costing more and more, so retailers have been capping their spend there. How will this impact Black Friday strategies, when there seems to be more marketing noise than ever? Staffing is another cost line. We are seeing reports of lower levels of seasonal hires which signals an expectation of lower peaks – and perhaps lesser service”.
- More retailers are starting to leverage third-party data. Such as weather data and google reports, to forewarn of issues or opportunities. Another third-party input is shipping timelines and cutoffs of the major last-mile shippers, which dictates the shift from online to in-store Holiday gift-buying.
- Pressure to innovate and find creative solutions. “We might see more retailers become creative during the holiday season, especially those who can’t win against its competition on price. Gray agrees with Google’s Eric Morris, that retailers should be using Black Friday, not as a general sale day, but a chance to promote new products or sequential messages in a broader campaign.”
- A focus on workers. As noted above, Gray says consumers will see more care for front line workers and “even more so with the shocking rise in abuse from a small but growing number of shoppers and incidence of theft. Seasonal mental illness and economic desperation will exacerbate that trend.”
- On a positive note: Gray says this year, many retailers have a tighter plan on inventory and “we are not seeing much panic selling yet.”