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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Chicken, the Egg, and the Retail Dilemma

Not only is it old news, but it's practically ancient history by now that several retailers began their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving evening.  I responded by ignoring the Thanksgiving Day sales with as much enthusiasm as I ignore the Black Friday sales.  Having been forced to participate in a run on Cabbage Patch Kids at Toys R Us with my mother when I was about eight years old, I have a pretty negative reaction to the mob mentality that comes with the cattle-call pursuit of STUFF that is the backbone of doorbuster sales.  Even though the Cabbage Patch Kid was for me, I knew back then that it just wasn't worth it.  Sure, I was glad I got Francis Xavier (who later had a bow tied in his hair and was re-Christened Crystal Something-Or-Other).  But if I'd known that I'd have to stand in line with a couple hundred adults and a (very) few children, then go stampeding with them to the very back of the store, and then witness grown-ups ripping dolls out of each others hands and pushing each other down, I think I would have chosen to do without Francis Xavier/Crystal Something-Or-Other.

Of course, after months of pre-election coverage and weeks of election post mortem, the talk shows on NPR that narrate my errands during the week were trying to fill the election vacuum with discussions about the new trend in Black Friday sales: starting them on Thursday, regardless of the fact that it's still Thanksgiving.  And what struck me was the claim the retailers kept repeating over and over again: We're only trying to give the customers what they want.  If they want to shop on Thanksgiving, then we want to provide them with that opportunity.

With a few notable exceptions, nobody wants to shop on Thanksgiving.  What people do want, what many people need in this crappy economy, are the deals.  And if retailers are only offering the good deals on Thanksgiving, then people are going to shop on Thanksgiving.  Of course, if the retailers wait until their normal week-day opening time on Friday morning to offer the great deals, the customers would happily do their shopping at that time.  But the retailers don't want to wait until 9 or 10 AM Friday morning, because they mistakenly believe that being open an additional 12 hours will beat out their competitors and improve their bottom line. 

Why do I say they 'mistakenly' believe this?  First because people will go for the deals, regardless of when the stores offer them.  Second, because people only have a certain amount of money to spend and shopping to do, and forcing them to get it done earlier means they won't do it later.  The New York Times recently reported that even though sales on Thanksgiving Day were up from last year (most likely because many stores were open more hours on Thursday compared to last year), Black Friday sales were down from 2011.  Overall sales of the weekend (if you can really call the five-day period beginning with Thanksgiving and ending with Cyber Monday a weekend) were up a bit from last year, but the evidence suggests that would have happened anyway.

But the retailers will only look at the improved sales from Thanksgiving, and convince themselves that if people were lining up at the doors at 8 PM, then that means they really want to be shopping at 4 PM, and that's an extra four hours of sales, which means an extra four hours to earn a profit (not that that's why they're doing it--they only want to give the customers what they want, after all).  And since there's zero chance of the economy improving significantly in the next twelve months and plenty of data suggesting it's going to get worse, the shoppers with dutifully show up for the great deals whenever they're offered.  And that will improve next Thanksgiving's sales, which will tell the retailers that the customers really want the stores to open at noon, and, well, you see where this is going.

In the meantime, Black Friday sales and early and mid-December sales will decrease, keeping the overall holiday shopping frenzy reasonably stable, with the modest increases or decreases (based on overall economic health) being spread thinner and thinner over the ever-expanding 'Holiday Season,' further diluting the meaning of the season and reinforcing the idea that our primary purpose in life is to be consumers, not citizens with a heritage to celebrate, a religion to observe, or families to enjoy.

Retailers and shoppers, supply and demand, chickens and their eggs.  Which came first?  In this case, for as long as the retailers have the most sought-after prize (good deals on stuff people want), the retailers make the rules.  Only when we stop behaving according to the retailers' assumption that we're nothing more than consumers can we begin asserting ourselves as people.

1 comment:

  1. You said it! I couldn't believe how many stores were opening ON Thanksgiving. My stomache kind of turned this year. It was bad enough they started at midnight in years past (meaning most employees would probably need to arrive around 8:00 PM to get the store set up for the deals) but now this? I agree that it will just keep spiraling if something isn't done and I don't know a single person who actually went shopping on the holiday this year.