Despite growth, Black Friday has lost its punch

The numbers are in, but they don’t match. Preliminary results from the holiday weekend’s sales have been coming in waves since late last week, but the reports have – varied, to say the least.

At least one early source posted unusually high results due to a small sample size, citing a 20.6% growth in online sales over Black Friday; IBM reported a more sedate 9.5% growth for the same category on Saturday. The National Retail Foundation put a damper on the collective mood by announcing an 11% drop in overall weekend sales year-over-year, even as retailers released statements touting “record” resultsfrom holiday sales pushes.

Let’s cut through the noise. Here’s what we know:

1. Mobile wins the Internet (sales).
Mobile shopping reached a milestone this year, accounting for 52.1% of online traffic on Thanksgiving Day and marking the first year mobile browsing outpaced desktop browsing. Mobile made up 49.6% of online traffic on Black Friday, and accounted for 27.9% of total online sales. This is a 28.2% jump from last year, according to IBM.

2. “Thanksgiving Creep” is real – and working.
IBM also reported a 14.3% increase in Thanksgiving online sales from 2013, which shows higher growth than Black Friday’s 9.5% uptick. While Black Friday sales were still higher than Thanksgiving Day sales by 63.5%, this represents a drop from last year when Black Friday sales jumped 70%. ShopperTrak reporteda similar trend with a 27.3% increase in Thanksgiving Day in-store traffic in direct contrast with a 5.6% decrease in Black Friday in-store traffic.

3. Consumers are spending less on average.
Although many optimistic reports are focusing on the online (fueled by mobile) shopping surge, the Average Order Value (AOV) of these purchases has gone down. The National Retail Foundation reported the average amount spent during the holiday weekend as $380.50, a 6.5% decrease from 2013. According to IBM, AOV for Thanksgiving purchases was $125.25, down 1.8% from last year, while Black Friday’s AOV dipped even lower, decreasing 4.4% year-over-year to $129.37.

Amid the conflicting reports, one trend is clear: Black Friday is losing its punch. Originally, Black Friday was a way for retailers to get people who were home for the long holiday weekend to come out to stores and shop. Clever marketing for one-day-only, deeply discounted prices as people geared up for the holidays translated into great sales numbers – and thus the tradition was born.

However, the game has now changed in more ways than one. Most significant is the shift towards online shopping; as more consumers research, engage, and purchase online, brick-and-mortar retailers must fight for more business to come to them on Black Friday. Online shopping deal days like Cyber Monday and other holiday promotions mean steeper competition for pricing, plus other conveniences like free shipping and returns.

Retailers have responded to this shift by extending the holiday season – including partaking in the “Thanksgiving Creep.” Doors open earlier and earlier each year, while pre-Black Friday promotions start rolling out months in advance. Ironically, this move might be the last nail in the proverbial coffin. Black Friday itself loses meaning when Black-Friday-caliber deals are suddenly available all month long, or when Thanksgiving Day takes over as the “new” Black Friday. This is apparent through the difference in traffic in stores over both days, as reported above.

All this being said, pundits are still optimistic for a successful holiday season – the National Retail Foundation sticks by its forecast of a 4.1% increase for overall holiday sales. It must be noted that Black Friday is not the sole indicator of how retailers will fare this holiday season, as ShopperTrak advises. But then again, maybe that’s the point.

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