For how much longer Will Black Friday be a thing?

Major retailers are announcing decisions to close on Thanksgiving day, reversing a recent trend in which stores opened earlier and earlier to increase sales.

Gunnar Rathbun/Invision for Walmart/AP/File
Customers shop at Walmart's Black Friday shopping event on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015 in Rogers, Ark.

Long lines of shoppers clutching goods with deeply slashed prices and backed up cars in mall parking lots are typical images associated with Black Friday in the United States.

In fact, that scene has been happening earlier and earlier in the past few years as more stores, such as Macy’s and Target, began opening on Thanksgiving day itself in a horserace to gain more customers.

But with the onslaught of internet sales and shifts in consumer habits, that image etched in the minds of Americans since the 1990s may need an update: The traffic might occur on the web rather than in malls, and the phenomenon of Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving Day may become less common.

Increasing online revenue means some retailers can afford to close on Thanksgiving and allow the purchases to occur online. Most recently, electronics retailer HHGregg announced Tuesday that it will join Mall of America, Staples, Sam’s Club, Costco, Ikea, Home Depot, Patagonia, and others to close on Thanksgiving Day. It's a reversal of HHGregg's decision to open at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day as it has for the past two years, The Chicago Tribune reports. 

"It's just crept in and gotten to be more of a distraction for our associates and more of a source of displeasure from a family standpoint," Bob Riesbeck, the president and chief executive officer of HHGregg, told the paper. "The more we started to look at promotions and the growth of the online business, it's obviously a very important holiday, but we can manage with promotions earlier that week, on Black Friday and through the weekend and not have significant financial impact."

Fewer openings may not mean fewer sales. The National Retail Federation (NRF) expects holiday sales this year to increase 3.6 percent, significantly higher than average rate since the recession, and a 7 to 10 percent increase in non-store sales. The PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2016 Holiday Outlook survey also found that shoppers are planning to spend 10 percent more this year compared to last, although many of them are more likely to be shopping online. 

“The great news for all retailers is consumers are much more optimistic this holiday season,” Steven Barr of PricewaterhouseCoopers  said in a press release. “But it’s not all good news for store-based retailers because shoppers are expected to increase their digital shopping by 25 percent.... The clear winners will likely be the major dot-com destinations, including select store and leading brand websites.” 

The report also finds that the end-of-year holiday shopping season that traditionally kicks off with Black Friday may soon cease to be “clear cut,” as online deals and discounts are offered earlier and at more times throughout the year.

It’s a situation that played out on Black Friday last year, when retail store Black Friday sales fell to $10.4 billion, compared to $11.6 billion in 2014, as reported by the Associated Press. Meanwhile, online sales rose by 14.3 percent, a consequence of online deals being offered by companies way before Thanksgiving, with some as early as Halloween. 

The shift in strategy, sacrificing in-store hours to cater to online shopping habits at the holidays, is a recent one, as Brad’s Deal senior content strategist Caroline Thompson wrote in a blog this week:

We've been tracking Black Friday store hours since 2007, and 2015 was the first year we actually saw a pushback from major retailers on Thanksgiving hours.... Black "Friday" sales have been slowly but surely encroaching on Thanksgiving dinnertime for the past several years. In 2014, all the major retailers we tracked for this study were open by 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving. 

“We recognize the Thanksgiving weekend shopping experience is much different than it used to be as just as many people want that unique, exclusive online deal as they do that in-store promotion,” National Retail Federation president and chief executive Matthew Shay said in a press release about 2015 Black Friday sales results. “It is clear that the age-old holiday tradition of heading out to stores with family and friends is now equally matched in the new tradition of looking online for holiday savings opportunities.” 

The evolving tradition, Mr. Shay wrote in a separate article, may be a consequence of the improving economy, as well. The recession in 2008 spurred leading retailers to open earlier as more “cash-strapped consumers were willing to line up at dawn to save a few dollars with Black Friday bargains.” But as the economy has improved, consumers are less pressured to wait for those sales – and instead opt for the convenience of online shopping from home.

“While rock-bottom prices have always grabbed headlines, this broad new range of shopping options offers other types of value to consumers who consider flexibility and convenience as important as price,” he wrote, adding, “Black Friday isn’t dead, but it is different.”

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