The year’s most popular discount shopping event, referring to the Friday after Thanksgiving, is arriving ahead of Halloween this year, with some promotions beginning this week and others throughout November.
Both retailers who have had tepid sales lately (Wal-Mart Stores, Sears) and those with rising sales (Amazon, Target) are pushing the tradition forward in a bid to snag shoppers’ limited money. Recession-trained customers are also pushing the stores to offer big deals now or risk losing out to competitors, though there is some skepticism about how significant some of the early discounts are.
The first “Black Friday Now” deals at Sears will be available beginning Friday and Saturday. Amazon’s electronics department will offer sales on items like Blu-ray players and high-definition TVs on Friday, and Toys “R” Us is putting all the items in its 80-page Christmas toy book on sale on Sunday.
Black Friday creep has been around for a while, but analysts say this year breaks new ground: the range of stores offering early discounts is wider, the discounts are steeper and the sale periods longer — in some instances, a full month before the real thing. Sears, for example, offered early promotions last year but expanded the hours and days this year, while Amazon is beginning earlier than ever.
“Consumers have been trained to buy merchandise only ‘on sale,’ ” Sherif Mityas, a partner in the retail practice at the consulting firm A. T. Kearney, said in an e-mail. “Given a limited budget, if retailers don’t capture that first or second purchase, they may find themselves with a lot of inventory the week before Christmas and the need for massive discounting to save the holiday.”
Some shoppers asked for a longer sale period, both for convenience and out of nervousness over crowds, said Barbara Schrantz, executive vice president of marketing and sales promotion at Bon-Ton Stores. After a Wal-Mart employee was trampled and killed on Black Friday in 2008, stores increased their crowd-control measures, but they do not want safety concerns to keep shoppers away from stores.
In some instances, deal hunters say, stores are just hijacking the Black Friday label. Mike Riddle, who started the site Black-Friday.net in 2006 to track deals, said shoppers should not believe that “special” prices for the Friday were necessarily lower than the usual price.
“Retailers are taking advantage of the term,” he said, citing the first Sears “Black Friday Now” circular as “nothing more than their weekly ad rebranded.” Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears Holdings, said the prices were not standard discounts; so far, customer response has been positive about this weekend’s deals, he said.
Traditionally, stores used low prices on the Friday after Thanksgiving to attract shoppers, who, they hoped, would put full-price items in their carts alongside the bargains.
In 2008, as the economy sank, the offers became more intense. “Retailers had to go even further in the breadth and depth of their sales post-Black Friday in attempts to salvage some degree of revenue,” Mr. Mityas said. Last year, with consumers trained to look for deals, “sales growth improved, but at the cost of profitability — retailers were essentially buying their foot traffic,” he said.
This year, the pre-Friday deals are expanding more than ever. And consumers and retailers are more evenly matched, Mr. Mityas said, as shoppers demand early and frequent sales, and retailers “aim to drive foot traffic without resorting to ‘70 percent off everything’ signs in the windows.”
For the first time, Target will run a four-day sale starting the Sunday before Thanksgiving in which more than 170 gift items will be discounted as much as 50 percent. While in the past Target has issued a standard circular before Thanksgiving, this year the discounts are deeper, more items will be discounted and the focus will be on gift-ready items in toys, electronics and entertainment, said Kathee Tesija, Target’s executive vice president of merchandising.
“The economy does play into it a little bit — this is always a very competitive time of year,” Ms. Tesija said. “We want them to come to us first, middle, last.”
She said discounts had to be good because shoppers had gotten smarter.
“Throughout the recession, I think they’ve been very thoughtful about how they spend their money,” she said. “They know when they’re getting a good deal.”
Some stores are holding out until Thanksgiving week, like Bon-Ton Stores, which will put most of its merchandise on sale the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
J. C. Penney will run a one-day sale on Nov. 17, adding to the “Biggest Sale of Them All” on Nov. 6, a “Huge Sale” on Nov. 20 and a “Day Before Thanksgiving” sale on Nov. 24.
The early sales extend to the Web. At Amazon.com, beyond the electronics sales beginning this week, the Black Friday deal page will go live sometime around the week of Thanksgiving, offering big discounts on popular products. Wal-Mart’s Web site will also run discounts starting in early November, offering up to 30 percent off 200 items a week in categories like toys, electronics, home and other gifts.
And Staples.com will offer discounts of more than 50 percent on some items like laptops, cameras and printers on the Sunday through Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
Even with the effort to capture more sales through early promotions, there is no guarantee that retailers will see a bounce in their bottom lines. In the three years before the financial crisis, there was accelerated spending in early November, said Mike Berry, director of industry research for MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, which estimates total retail sales. But in 2008 and 2009, as shopping creep took hold, spending was weaker.
One explanation is that retailers cut prices too steeply, leading perhaps to increased traffic but low revenue over all. And customers simply refused to buy anything at full price.
Brad Wilson, who runs BlackFriday2010.com, said he expected consumers to have the upper hand again this year. “After an exhilarating late 2008 and full-year 2009, this year has been boring in the ‘great deals’ corner of retail,” he said in an e-mail. “October has started to pick that up, and I think November and December could break it wide open.”
Robert Buchanan, a finance professor who specializes in retail at the John Cook School of Business at Saint Louis University, said shoppers had become smart enough to sidestep the regularly priced goods.
“My guess is that the majority are just cherry-picking the special items,” he said. “They’re looking for the $6 toaster and they’re on their way.