For years, “Black Friday” served as the unofficial launch of the holiday shopping season, a cultural touchpoint that often brought families together, visions of bargains dancing in their heads, to head out on early-morning shopping voyages the day after Thanksgiving, eager to snare that perfect treasure. How nostalgic those times seem today. A variety of […]
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For years, “Black Friday” served as the unofficial launch of the holiday shopping season, a cultural touchpoint that often brought families together, visions of bargains dancing in their heads, to head out on early-morning shopping voyages the day after Thanksgiving, eager to snare that perfect treasure.
How nostalgic those times seem today.
A variety of factors, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the astronomical growth of next-day (and even, in some cases, same-day) fulfillment of online purchases, have pushed the holiday retail season well back into the calendar year, transforming “Black Friday” into “Black November” – and increasingly, into “Black Autumn.”
Early reports from the 2021 holiday season certainly bear out that characterization. Nancy Abram, associate professor of practice in the marketing department at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, said according to a National Retail Federation survey, nearly 50% of American consumers had already begun their holiday shopping before November. That’s a new record, topping the previous mark of 42% set in 2020.
Ms. Abram said she doesn’t expect that trend to change anytime soon, if at all. This year, in particular, she noted, holiday celebrations may be larger and more extravagant than normal because of their near-absence in 2020, when pandemic concerns were near their peak.
“I think it’s because of pent-up demand,” she said. “People didn’t have Christmas last year, and they’re anxious and excited. I’ve noticed on social media posts that (many) families are decorating for Christmas before Thanksgiving, with their trees and their whole house already decked out. I think there’s extra anticipation of enjoying the holidays again this year with family.”
Airwaves, social media feeds and mailboxes have been jammed with ads touting “Black Friday” deals for several weeks, and most are referencing sales well before the actual “Black Friday” date. That retail terminology is based on consumer perception, Ms. Abram said.
“If you call it a holiday deal, the perception is that it’s a good deal,” she said. “But if it’s called a ‘Black Friday’ deal, the perception is that it’s really a great deal. They’re extending the label to generate the perception that this is going to be an unprecedented price value.”
For various reasons, the surge in holiday shopping may disproportionately benefit big-box retailers such as Amazon, Walmart and Target, Ms. Abram said.
“Smaller businesses have been at a disadvantage ever since the pandemic began,” she said. “They don’t have an app. They don’t have a website that you can say you’re going to pick it up curbside or have it delivered to your house. Those are the conveniences that technology offers us and that the larger folks have fully integrated. (Many of) your smaller local retailers don’t even have online options.”
Still, many local merchants have reported a dramatic uptick in pre-holiday business. Cassie Hammarmeister, who owns Uptown Marion floral shop Roots in Bloom and recently purchased and reopened Newport’s Flowers in southwest Cedar Rapids, said she’s already been fielding a dramatically larger volume of holiday orders this year than in previous years.
“We started to see it last year,” Ms. Hammarmeister said. “And it’s even more so this holiday season. People, I think, are wanting to feel the holiday magic sooner. It’s been a struggle between the pandemic and derecho. Feeling that holiday cheer, the Hallmark movies – people are wanting that, and they want to experience it sooner and longer. We’re making Christmas wreaths for people before we’re making their Thanksgiving centerpiece. Or they already have their tree up, so they want us to get their garland in or have their wreath ready. They want their outdoor planters ready for guests. I think more people are going to be getting together with families, so they’re planning get-togethers, and they’re wanting their home to be ready.”
Ms. Hammarmeister said she doesn’t feel that larger competitors will significantly impact her business.
“You can get flowers and plants in so many places,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s going to hurt our small businesses because through this pandemic, we have thought of more ways to please the community and meet their needs through personal engagement and figuring things out. That personal service means more to people, especially at the holidays. That’s why us local businesses are in business. We love personal connections and we love connecting to our community. I wouldn’t ever want to be a franchise or be a big corporation. I love seeing the faces, talking to people and being a part of their holidays. Every small business owner I know loves being a part of not only the community’s holidays but their everyday needs. You just can’t replace that.”
Even as consumers show more willingness to spend this year – the National Retail Federation predicts holiday retail sales in the U.S. will rise 8.5% to 10.5% this year, with toys, electronics and photo and video gear among the strongest categories – there may still be some headwinds, Ms. Abram noted.
“Supply chain concerns are big,” she said. “You’re going to see those retailers with deep pockets try and circumvent it as much as they can. Amazon, Walmart and Target are renting their own containers, getting their own ships or airfreighting more items. They’re still stuck with a trucking problem, but many of them have their own fleets. They’re not as dependent on third-party logistics (3PL) because they have their own logistics. I think it’s going to be really difficult for the smaller folks (to get inventory).”
As a result of those supply chain snarls, Ms. Abram said, there will likely be far fewer sharply-discounted products this season than in past years, and retailers, whether local or national, will be increasingly pressed to capitalize on their customers as extensively as possible.
“Given margins and performance, we’re probably not going to see as many big deals,” she said. “Demand for goods has been very strong, and when demand is strong, why give it away?”
One pandemic-driven trend has seen shoppers less willing to visit multiple retailers, preferring to visit a single merchant as much as possible, Ms. Abram said.
“Whether it’s Target, Walmart or Amazon, they still want to get shoppers in their store or on their website,” she noted. “All things being equal, they all have similar goods. They have to do something to incentivize folks to buy from them as opposed to others.”
And since sales in many retail categories are skewed heavily to the holiday shopping season – reports indicate, for example, that up to 70% of toy sales occur during November and December – it’s increasingly essential that merchants strike while the retail iron is hot, particularly in the wake of the recent economic downturn.
“This is the time when the fish are biting,” she said. “You’ll need to make sure people are fishing in your pond.”