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Why Black Friday Is Overrated (and Always Was)

The hot shopping day that's actually...meh

Is Black Friday a meaningless barometer for the retail industry? Photo: Getty Images

Travis Dent hopes Black Friday just dies, not least because it's already killed seven people. "The only thing 'doorbuster' deals has going for it is novelty," said Dent, a Web developer who also runs Black Friday Death Count, a website that clocks the injuries and fatalities that happen on the biggest shopping day of the year. "And it's only a matter of time before that wears out."

If statistics are any indicator, Dent may get his wish sooner than later. For years, the day after Thanksgiving was used as a barometer for the fiscal vigor of the entire holiday shopping season, or even the economy as a whole. But the day’s importance—both as an economic indicator and a sales occasion—is slipping. Analysts point to everything from the growing popularity of 24/7 shopping online to the steady backward creep of store sales as reasons why Black Friday isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.

Oddly enough, retailers themselves have been the primary force behind Black Friday’s eroding significance. In an attempt to compete with online sellers, brick-and-mortar stores began offering "Pre-Black Friday" deals on Thanksgiving night, then Thanksgiving Day, and then a week or more earlier. This year, for example, Toys"R"Us has started "Black Friday Make Easy"—which means opening on Thursday. Best Buy began putting technology gifts on sale Nov. 20. Walmart started offering free shipping on the season’s hot gifts as of Nov. 1. “Why wait? Black Friday Prices NOW,” barked Sears—seven days before Black Friday. A just-released study by G/O Digital shows retailers are running their Black Friday promos nearly two days earlier this year than last.

“We definitely see retailers pushing Black Friday earlier than ever,” said Sara Al-Tukhaim, director of retail insights for Kantar Retail. “This concept of Black Friday is just getting stretched out more” and becoming “more blurry.”

As that's happened, Black Friday has steadily lost its sense of occasion. According to a recent study by Accenture, 19 percent of Americans report that they’ve already spent between $100 and $500 on holiday shopping—having started as early as September—and 18 percent of consumers now believe the best holiday deals happen before Thanksgiving. (They’re right, too. An analysis of 4,500 retail websites by Adobe Systems shows the best sales now hit the Monday before Thanksgiving.)

Indeed, some have taken to calling Thanksgiving Black Thursday and, in light of sales starting weeks before the big day, USA Today recently observed that “November is the new Black Friday.” It's also no help that in recent years Americans have also been encouraged to shop on Small Business Saturday (Nov. 29) and Cyber Monday (Dec. 1). “Look for Monday [the 24th] to be the next Cyber Monday and Wednesday [the 26th] to be the new Black Friday,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group.

He’s joking—and serious. Even in the pre-Web era, when Black Friday really was the king of shopping days, Cohen says its importance as an economic gauge was lukewarm at best. Not only is year-end holiday shopping only 19 percent of national retail's total take, Black Friday was at best only 25 percent of that number. “Black Friday was always a small, false read,” Cohen said. “It wasn’t a good indication, but it’s as good as we had.”

Cohen also explained that starting sales a month or more before Black Friday doesn’t stimulate more business so much as spread the same commerce out over a longer period. “We’re not changing our behavior,” he said, “we’re just changing when we shop. It’s a front-loaded thing, and we go into a deeper lull after it’s over.”

None of this is to say that Black Friday is about to disappear. According to the National Retail Federation, nearly 30 percent of shoppers plan to spend money on Black Friday (even though that’s a dip from last year), and NRF media director Kathy Grannis said “retailers certainly don’t want to abandon their customers who love the idea and novelty of shopping on that day.” Kantar’s Al-Tukhaim added that “we’re a shopping culture that appreciates our traditions.”

But Travis Dent, whose site last recorded a pepper-spray fight over a TV set at Walmart, still can’t see the point of the hassle. “With Internet shopping, problems like lines, crowds and wearing pants are bygone nuisances,” he said. “Why would anyone risk a midnight pepper-spray attack from a mall cop when they can let warehouse robots do it for them?”

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