Shoppers are changing the way they behave on the long Thanksgiving weekend, making Black Friday visits to bricks-and-mortar stores a somewhat less dominant force in the holiday shopping scene.
For years, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, reigned supreme in the retail world as shoppers spent the day braving long lines at the local mall to score bargains on Christmas gifts. But now, among other things, online commerce is playing an ever-increasing role.
Crowds in some malls and shopping districts were thinner than normal on Friday, according to initial reports from both Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. That was in line with a recent survey by the Deloitte consulting firm that found that among holiday weekend shoppers, 44 percent planned to shop in-store on Black Friday – a decline from 63 percent in 2012.
Retailing experts say factors that are reducing Black Friday’s role include:
• Online retailers starting holiday sales well before families sit down for their turkey dinner. Amazon started an eight-day promotion on Nov. 20 telling customers, “Skip the lines and shop Black Friday deals from anywhere, even your couch.”
• A national trend to include Thanksgiving Day in the Christmas shopping season – a movement that got going with Wal-Mart’s 2009 decision to open on Thanksgiving night. Many stores around the country were full on Thanksgiving evening, Reuters reported.
• A surge in e-commerce sales on Thanksgiving Day, as shoppers combine holiday eating with shopping online – so-called “couch commerce.” By 5 p.m. Thursday on the East Coast, $1.1 billion had been spent online, according to a report from Adobe Systems that was quoted by Bloomberg. Full-day online sales were projected to total $1.7 billion, a 22 percent jump from a year ago. A big demand for "Star Wars" toys helped drive the surge.
• A decision by some major retailers to make the most popular, traffic-building items – so-called “door busters" – available online before their bricks-and-mortar stores opened in an effort to compete with Amazon. According to The Wall Street Journal, Wal-Mart made a majority of its Black Friday deals available online Thanksgiving morning, roughly 15 hours before its stores opened.
• The prevalence of mobile devices with fast online connections, meaning buyers can shop anywhere they are. Abode predicted that for the first time, mobile devices would overtake desktop computers on Thanksgiving to drive 51 percent of online shopping visits.
"People are no longer waiting until they get back to work to shop. I have a better connection on my phone right now than I do at my desk at work,” Steven Skinner, a senior vice president of Cognizant Technology Solutions, told Bloomberg News.
The four-day holiday period plays a key role in determining the outlook for merchants. Thirty million Americans shopped online or in stores on Thanksgiving Day, while 99.7 million will shop on Black Friday, the National Retail Federation estimates. Overall, the group predicts that 135.8 million people will shop during the long Thanksgiving weekend, versus the 133.7 million who did so in 2014. These purchases will account for 10 to 15 percent of total holiday sales.
Holiday sales account for as much as 30 percent of retailers' business for the year, the National Retail Federation says. The trade group is predicting that holiday sales will increase 3.7 percent in 2015 to $630.5 billion. That compares with a 4.1 percent increase in 2014 and an average increase over the past 10 years of 2.5 percent.
There are reasons for retailers to be concerned about the holiday spending outlook. Wage growth has been stagnant, with compensation for civilian workers increasing just 2 percent for the year ending September 2015. On Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported that household spending grew 0.1 percent in October, only about one third as fast as economists had predicted.