Wal-Mart Black Friday sales for 2009: The story behind the leak

With the release of Wal-Mart's Black Friday Sales for 2009 ad, the retail giant attempts to walk a fine line between using and being hurt by the Internet.

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    Shoppers swamped Wal-Mart in Sacramento, Calif. to take advantage of Black Friday specials in 2008. This year, the release of Wal-Mart's Black Friday sales for 2009 was an attempt by the retail giant to walk a fine line between harnessing the power of the Internet and being stung by it.
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Updated 11:15 a.m. EST with comment from Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart’s Black Friday sales for 2009 are now alive in full color on the Internet. From door-buster TVs to a $198 laptop to a $59 GPS system, the retail titan’s Black Friday plans have been laid bare at last.

Where just this past weekend Wal-Mart was brandishing its brace of lawyers at the leak of several movie and videogame prices, Wednesday it OK'd the release of its entire clutch of Black Friday secrets ahead of its own Nov. 23 release date.

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Why the change of heart? The move speaks volumes about a company trying to harness the Internet’s viral power while not tipping its hand too soon.

Over the weekend of Nov. 15, a user on a forum hosted by the website DVDTalk.com posted Black Friday prices for several DVDs, Blu-Rays, and videogames.

Since Wal-Mart had already sent letters this summer warning websites like DVDTalk and others not to publish its Black Friday deals early, what happened next came as no surprise. The company's lawyers quickly contacted the site's owners, Internet Brands Inc., and demanded that the post be removed. DVDTalk took the item down.

“We try to be good corporate citizens. While we didn’t editorially post it, we respect everyone in the retail space,” says DVDTalk director Brent Conver.

Then on Tuesday, Wal-Mart confirmed the price of six Black Friday items to CNN. After a user e-mailed him a high-quality copy of Wal-Mart’s Black Friday circular, BlackFriday.info founder Jon Vincent called the company to negotiate its wider release and was allowed to publish the entire flyer Wednesday.

“I was saying, listen, this thing is all over the place, it’s kind of stupid to not let us post it. They gave us permission,” Mr. Vincent says. “They realized they can’t stop the Internet.”

In an e-mail message, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Tara Raddohl wrote that Wal-Mart has "not confirmed the accuracy of any leaks or circulars currently posted, nor have we given the day after Thanksgiving circular to any site or media outlet."

But why admonish DVDTalk and then give BlackFriday the juice? Several reasons, Black Friday analysts say. First, because many Black Friday sites are tiny operations with a small crew or single proprietor, a Wal-Mart lawsuit threat carries a lot of weight. When CNN came calling, the threat of litigation was diminished.

“The difference is Wal-Mart knows they can’t litigate CNN out of existence,” says Michael Brim, founder of BFAds.net.

Further, the many sites pursuing and posting the latest Black Friday deals don't want to spoil relations with their golden goose, an issue not faced by CNN. BFAds makes a small commission from Wal-Mart for each shopper that passes through its portal en route to a purchase on Wal-Mart's website.

What could be seen as a corporate giant bowing to the pressure of the savvy Web sleuths might, in fact, be an integral part of Wal-Mart’s marketing strategy. In terms of timing, Vincent says it may have been almost perfectly placed.

“We’re only about a week away from Black Friday so it's not too far away. People are going to be taking the next week off probably so now is kind of a good time to reach them before they check out,” Vincent says.

Noting that his site’s Black Friday post was Alexa.com’s 7th most popular on the Internet Wednesday afternoon, Wal-Mart’s release certainly generated interest.

“Tons of people are visiting our site and they’re getting tons of exposure,” he says.

By working diligently to keep their ad off the Internet before the right moment, Wal-Mart may have safeguarded its best Black Friday secret: Its deals really might be the best.

“Their ad this year is great. I think it beats all the other Black Friday ads,” Vincent says. “They want all the other ads to leak out and then their ad goes out and they one-up everybody.”

By battling when they need to and then carefully allowing their promotions to slip, Wal-Mart walks a fine line in the holiday market: whetting consumers appetites without sacrificing too much commercial edge.

“They basically want the best of both worlds,” Brim says.

And for now, they’re getting it.

See also:

Black Friday 2009: Are Black Friday’s years numbered?

Black Friday 2009 Wal-Mart ad: Some people know what’s in it

Black Friday 2009 deals: Will Best Buy or online stores win?

Wal-Mart's 2009 Black Friday Flier

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David Grant is a Monitor contributor. What are the best Black Friday deals on the market right now? Let us know on Twitter.

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