Black Friday 2018: A Not-So-Wild Day for American Shoppers

Posted November 23, 2018 11:37 p.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2018 11:42 p.m. EST

Shoppers crowd the Macy's store in Herald Square in Manhattan on Black Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. As the official start of the holiday shopping season begins, retailers and analysts say Black Friday 2018 appears to be off to a strong start. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

Here we are again: Mildly annoyed by the obvious consumerism, but totally in love with the deals. It must be Black Friday.

The Friday after Thanksgiving is still the official start of the holiday shopping season, but things are changing. For starters, Thanksgiving is no longer sacred — shoppers head outside or online to get an early start before the turkey is even cold. And instead of lining up at the crack of dawn after sleeping off their feasts, more people are shopping on their phones. In fact, if you follow the advice of our friends at Wirecutter, you’ll stay home and shop in your PJs.

Shoppers won’t want for time this year: The gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas — 32 days if you don’t count the holidays themselves — is long (next year it will be just 26 days). That means procrastinators get more time to put things off and retailers get one more shot at luring you in. But beware: Hanukkah is coming on the early side this year.

Going to the Mall — But Not for the Shopping

Just before 11 a.m. at the Fashion Island mall in Orange County, California, the line to see Santa Claus was about 15-people deep, including parents and grandparents. Laura Natale, who lives nearby, brought her 3-year-old son, Christopher, to see Santa. Asked if the crowds were any larger than a typical Friday, she said: “Not really.”

Others had anticipated more bustle at this palm-and-Christmas-tree-laden outdoor mall near Newport Beach, saying they remembered a bigger post-Thanksgiving rush last year. “It’s more empty than I expected,” said Michelle Gorczyza, who also lives in the area. She did encounter a long line at Anthropologie, so she skipped the store, deciding she could just as easily buy online.

Her husband, Danny, said that nowadays people come to the mall more for the food and the experience than the shopping. “You don’t see people running around with 10 bags,” he said. “They’re happy to spend $50 on lunch and just soak in the atmosphere.”

That’s what 28-year old Mitch Williams did on this sunny morning, sitting beneath one of the palm trees. “My grandpa is visiting from Ohio, so we’re having coffee and omelets.”

Was he doing any shopping? He shook his head no: “I do that online.”


Black Friday Has Lots of Competition

Black Friday, a “holiday” that wasn’t a holiday until it was deemed to be by American retailers a few decades ago, has a remarkably enduring position on the calendar as the year’s most significant celebration of commercialism.

Retailers start marketing it months in advance. Hordes of shoppers turn out in person and online. Google even programmed it into its calendar as an official holiday.

But Black Friday has competition. Lots of it.

Shopping holidays abound. World Fair Trade Day was May 12. Small Business Saturday falls on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Monday after that is Cyber Monday — a creation of the not-so-long-ago era when shopping online seemed almost exotic. And Dec. 14 is Free Shipping Day.

Those are just the free-for-alls, where all retailers can participate.

Many companies have laid claim to their own corporate holidays. Alibaba’s Singles Day festival on Nov. 11 topped $30 billion in sales. Customers bought more than 100 million products in Amazon’s Prime Day event in July.

There was also Overstocktober, which used to push promotions before rebranding it as Customer Day on Oct. 15 this year. EBay declared the second Monday of each December to be Green Monday. Wayfair had Way Day in April for what it calls “better-than-Black-Friday deals.” Macy’s held a “Black Friday in July” sale over the summer.

“If we’ve seen anything in retail over the last 20, 30 years, it’s that consumers need to be motivated to shop,” said Michael Brown, a partner with A.T. Kearney’s retail practice. “They need to be provoked.”

And not just in the United States. Boxing Day in Britain, which comes after Christmas, has evolved into a day to observe hallowed shopping rituals. In Australia, Click Frenzy in February focuses on online shopping.

For anyone above all that crass consumerism? There’s a day for them, too.

The website for Buy Nothing Day urges consumers to “escape the Shopocalypse,” noting that the “anarchy that ensues on Black Friday has now become an absurd dystopian phenomenon.”


A Strong Start for Retailers

Retailers and analysts said Black Friday 2018 got off to a strong start — and all indications were that it finished strong, too.

Adobe Analytics, reported that as of 8 p.m. Eastern, consumers had spent about $4.1 billion on Black Friday — a 23 percent increase from the same period last year.

Though the cold weather in the Eastern United States may have kept some shoppers home, Mastercard SpendingPulse said that generally “online sales appear to be filling in any weather related soft spots in brick and mortar sales.” The clothing, electronics and interior furnishing sectors were seeing especially good traction, the analysis said.

The upbeat prognosis was supported, at least in part, by photos and videos posted Friday morning on Twitter, which showed long lines and bunches of bundled shoppers gathered at places including a Kohl’s in Mansfield, Massachusetts, and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“Stores are busy, there’s good traffic, the queues are manageable and well-staffed, and inventory levels appear to be good for the time of day too,” said Frank Layo, managing director of Kurt Salmon, which is part of Accenture Strategy. “Retailers helped themselves by starting promotions much earlier this year to spread out the holiday shopping traffic and mitigate chaos. Their efforts appear to be paying off.”


But There Are Hiccups

Early in the day, J.Crew wrote on Twitter that it was “experiencing some technical difficulties” with its website. The site appeared to be functioning fine soon afterward.

About three hours later, the home page for Lowe’s displayed a message that it was undergoing maintenance. The site was soon restored.

Still, analysts monitoring Black Friday said online sales were chugging along, driven in part by the cold, wet weather in some parts of the country, which they said may have nudged some shoppers away from stores and toward their computers or smartphones.


Black Friday Goes Global ...

There is no Thanksgiving holiday in Europe, but that hasn’t stopped the associated consumer bonanza from hitting shops there. French retail brands like Darty, Fnac and Monoprix joined Apple, Sephora and Uniqlo in efforts to attract bargain hunters Friday.

In Britain, where sales used to take place after Christmas, shops have added Black Friday to their promotional calendars. Offers have been trickling in for at least a week. Amazon started its sales Nov. 16.

Most other stores have joined the fray, with even discount supermarkets offering money off everything from vintage turntables to legs of ham.


... With Even Canadians on the Bandwagon ...

The “holiday” — in French-speaking Montreal, they call it “Vendredi Fou” — has reportedly become Canada’s busiest shopping day of the year, eclipsing Boxing Day (or Dec. 26), when the traditional post-Christmas Day sales would bring out hordes of shoppers.

This Black Friday, the stores in Montreal were packed, especially in the underground, labyrinth-like malls such as Eaton Center, which was crowded with people seeking shelter from the subfreezing weather. Athletic wear, women’s shoes and men’s suits were marked off at 50 percent or more in the Eaton Center mall. Outside one electronics store, velvet ropes were set up to keep the lines under control.

It’s said that Black Friday migrated to Canada in the early 2000s, when the American and Canadian dollars were roughly on par. These days the greenback is worth 1.32 Canadian dollars, making these discounts even greater.


... Though China Has Its Own Version

China celebrated its own invented shopping holiday this month. The country’s economic ascent has turned hundreds of millions of people into eager consumers. And they are buying stuff online with great gusto thanks in part to low wages that make shipping fast and cheap.

The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba said it sold $30.8 billion worth of goods on Nov. 11, the annual online bonanza known as Singles Day. The company rang up $1 billion in sales in the first 85 seconds of this year’s frenzy. It took an hour to reach $10 billion. All in all, the company says it generated more than a billion delivery orders that day.

For some context: In the United States last year, online shopping from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday totaled about $19.62 billion, according to Adobe Analytics. (Yes, it’s true, that doesn’t include all the in-store shopping that took place on Black Friday.)

In addition to inundating phone owners with coupons and deals for weeks in advance, Alibaba deploys subtler methods to gin up sales on Singles Day. This year, users of the company’s Taobao shopping app could see how their spending on Nov. 11 compared to that of other people in their area.


Shopping on ‘Black Thursday’ (aka Thanksgiving)

For many shoppers, Black Friday actually began right in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner.

Even on this, the second coldest Thanksgiving in New York City history, and the coldest since 1901, revelers still took to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and shoppers still lined up for Black Friday deals (or at least paid someone to do it).

Walmart took the lead competing head-on with Thanksgiving dinner by throwing in-store parties with free food. Calling it a way to “pump up customers,” the company expected to be handing out 4 million free Keurig coffees and 2 million Christmas-themed cookies starting at 4 p.m. In-store Black Friday deals began at 6 p.m., but it wasn’t customers’ first crack at them: The chain began offering holiday bargains Nov. 8.

Target opened its doors at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving (same with Kohl’s). In announcing its Black Friday plans, Target admonished customers to “head to the store after dinner.”


Shopping from the Dinner Table

Online shoppers, too, were busy on Thanksgiving Day. They shelled out $3.7 billion Thursday, an increase of about 28 percent compared with last year, according to a report from Adobe Analytics, which tracks transactions from 80 of the country’s top 100 online retailers.

And many of those online shoppers aren’t heading to their desks or even grabbing their laptops. Thanksgiving marked the first day during which $1 billion in sales came from smartphones, Adobe said. And consumers spent more on their phones, with average order values up 8 percent compared with Thanksgiving Day last year.


Shopping on the ‘Gram

Social media is playing a bigger role than ever in people’s holiday shopping habits. According to Accenture, 15 percent of shoppers in 2018 will use social media for some of their purchases, up from 8 percent last year. With a growing share of retail sales taking place online — and nearly half those sales coming on mobile devices — social media might be a way for brands to counter the competition.

It could help retailers offset some of the deep discounts that consumers expect on Black Friday.

“If you can grab people in the inspirational moment, they’re not going to be as price-sensitive and maybe they won’t shop around,” said Jill Standish, Accenture’s global lead for retail.

Standish compared selling via social media to Amazon’s 1-click ordering (something that, according to one survey, had 70 percent of respondents spending more money).

Another advantage? Online, Standish said, it can be easy “for a small brand to look big” if they know how to present themselves, and know how to attract the right influencer profiles to promote their products. A strong social media presence can make a company seem instantly reputable.


When Bargains Become a Tradition

There are three reasons Black Friday is so popular, and two of them are the deals, according to Tulin Erdem, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“The economic savings, feeling good about yourself having found a good deal, being a shrewd consumer,” she said, all add up to one key factor. Plus, because so many stores offer Black Friday sales, it’s easier to find discounts without having to search as hard as you might during the rest of the year.

But, Erdem said, another reason Black Friday remains so popular is tradition.

“It still has its appeal because of this ritualistic aspect,” she said. “It’s like going to a big important baseball game or Super Bowl as an American family.”

Consider that the National Retail Federation surveyed 7,516 consumers about their shopping plans this year, and 26 percent of those who planned to shop on Black Friday said it was because of tradition. An additional 23 percent said they would shop because it’s just something to do. (As far as we know, nobody was asked whether they’re shopping just to get away from family members.)

Of course Black Friday is just the start of things. If retailers don’t start discounting before Thanksgiving — and most seem to — they are certainly using the holiday shopping season to push merchandise at every turn. The biggest discounts tend to come on “Super Saturday” — the last Saturday before Christmas, said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail analysis firm.

But Black Friday does matter. Consumers surveyed by the retail federation said they planned to shop more on Black Friday than on any other day of the Thanksgiving weekend.

And Black Friday maintains cultural cache, especially for “new Americans,” Johnson said, as recent immigrants are more likely to take part. “That’s how you learn to be an American consumer, by showing up and shopping on Black Friday.”