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Doorbusters Busted: Shoppers Rethink Black Friday

Nov 29, 2019
Originally published on December 2, 2019 7:05 am

Black Friday isn't what it used to be. Just ask Chris Ott.

He married into a family that never missed the occasion. And let's just say, he really got into it.

After Thanksgiving dinner, they'd peruse Black Friday ads, developing a "really fun strategic plan — pick the store that we were going to wait outside of, we would divide and conquer," says Ott, 42, a cybersecurity engineer and youth pastor in the Denver area.

"It was so extreme for us that we'd be on vacation with family in Florida over Thanksgiving and we would wait outside the Best Buy in Orlando to see what we could get there," he adds with a laugh.

But lately, this family tradition has fizzled out. Stores kept opening earlier, cutting into Thanksgiving dinner. The Internet made it easy to price-check deals that started to seem less worthwhile. Online shopping became convenient.

Last year, "we decided we'd rather just put up Christmas decorations, and didn't even go," Ott says.

It's not just Ott. This year, only 36% of people said they planned to do most of their holiday shopping on Black Friday — down from 51% just three years ago, according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

PwC survey, Holiday Outlook 2019

"Black Friday is still a very major event, both for retailers and for shopping. But historically, it's been the major event and now it's just a part of the overall season," says Steve Barr, who leads PwC's consumer markets practice.

Stores have "permanently conditioned" shoppers to expect big discounts on days other than Black Friday, Barr says. Retailers have made up additional shopping holidays like Cyber Monday and Prime Day. They've moved doorbusters back to Thursday and even Wednesday. This year, many started holiday sales in October.

To be clear, Black Friday is still the busiest shopping day of the year. "Our data shows that there's still a massive spike on Black Friday," says Brian Field of ShopperTrak, which tracks in-store foot traffic.

Of course, not everyone who visits a store actually buys something. Still, compared with the rest of the year, Field says, Black Friday also does better at attracting shoppers to stores.

But for the past two years, the number of people joining the tradition has inched lower. And some experts say, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"It's a minor decline," Field says. "And it's probably more than made up for with the shopping that's happening online."

In fact, this year PwC found — for the first time — the majority of people planned to do their holiday shopping online instead of in stores.

PwC survey, Holiday Outlook 2019

Besides, stores have tried for years to make doorbusters a more pleasant experience, to tame the stampedes and the fights over toys and TVs. In the most infamous 2008 incident, some 2,000 riled-up shoppers literally burst through the doors of a Walmart in New York state, trampling a store worker to death.

And if you think about it, the doorbuster culture has stores fighting over shoppers who are mainly there because stuff is cheap — many of whom might not return until the following holiday season, says Peter Fader, professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Now, Fader says, more and more companies are realizing the real value is in loyal shoppers who are there all year, rather than fair-weather shoppers from one weekend in November.

"There's always the chance that we could turn that ugly duckling into a beautiful swan, but it's not that common," he says. "And you'd start to say, 'Whoa, wait a minute, why are we paying people double overtime to be here, to serve these not-so-great customers?' "

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You're in the United States, this is Black Friday, the day when shoppers stand in line for holiday sales - or so the day has been. But if Black Friday doesn't mean much to you, you are not alone. Here's NPR's Alina Selyukh.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Black Friday shopping is not something Chris Ott grew up doing, but he married into a family who never missed the occasion.

CHRIS OTT: We'd have Thanksgiving dinner as a big family, and then we'd sit around looking at the ads for Black Friday shopping. And we would develop this really fun, strategic plan, pick the store that we were going to wait outside of. We would divide and conquer.

SELYUKH: He's now a youth pastor and cybersecurity engineer in the Denver area, and though Ott says at first he found the whole Black Friday deal-hunting a little crazy, let's just say he got really into it.

OTT: It was so extreme for us that we would - we'd be on vacation with family in Florida over Thanksgiving, and we would wait outside the Best Buy in Orlando and see what we could get there.

SELYUKH: But in the past few years, this family tradition has fizzled out to a point that last year...

OTT: We decided we'd rather just put up Christmas decorations and didn't even go.

SELYUKH: Ott is far from alone. This year only 36% of people said they planned to shop on Black Friday, down from 51% just three years ago. That's according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, or PwC, where Steve Barr leads the consumer markets practice.

STEVE BARR: Black Friday is still a very major event, both for retailers and for shopping. But historically, it's been the major event, and now it's just a part of the overall season.

SELYUKH: Barr says people know that great discounts no longer just happen on Black Friday. Retailers have made up more shopping holidays like Cyber Monday or Prime Day. Stores now open for doorbuster sales on Thanksgiving Thursday or even Wednesday. This year, lots of sales started a whole month earlier in October.

BARR: Retailers have permanently conditioned consumers to believe that there will be promotional events throughout the entire season and not through a single day.

SELYUKH: To be clear, Black Friday is still the busiest shopping day of the year, and compared to the rest of the year, Black Friday does better at attracting shoppers to malls and all kinds of stores. But every year, the number of people joining the tradition is slightly lower, and some experts say it's not necessarily a bad thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SCREAMING)

SELYUKH: Scenes of crowds lining up overnight, stampeding inside, fighting over televisions and toys - for years, retail companies have tried to tame the crowds and make doorbusters a more pleasant experience. In the most infamous incident in 2008, a Wal-Mart worker got trampled to death when 2,000 riled-up shoppers literally busted through the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Police say what happened here this morning was utter chaos.

SELYUKH: And if you think about it, the doorbuster culture had stores fighting over shoppers who are chasing stuff that's cheap, says Peter Fader, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

PETER FADER: Customer who hasn't been with us since last Black Friday and is unlikely to come again until next year...

SELYUKH: Fader says more and more companies are realizing the real value is in loyal shoppers who are there all year, not fair-weather shoppers from one weekend in November.

FADER: There's always the chance that we could turn that ugly duckling into a beautiful swan, but it's not that common. And you'd start to say, whoa. Wait a minute. Why are we paying people double overtime to be here to serve these not-so-great customers?

SELYUKH: And that's one of the reasons why a few stores now outright close on Black Friday. Many more offer deals on their websites just as good as in stores. In fact, this year, PwC found for the first time, the majority of people plan to do their holiday shopping online rather than busting through any doors.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "THREE KINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.