Black Friday is nearly upon us. As the fateful day approaches, I’ve been seeing articles pop up saying that the occasion is “dying” or even “dead.” So, is it? And if so, why, and what does that mean for ebooks and e-readers?
Last week, USA Today observed that over the last few years, Black Friday has “lost some of its mojo” as the traditional “busiest day of the year” has waned in favor of the Saturday before Christmas. I was interested to read that retailers that “started Black Friday early” by opening on Thanksgiving have found that it really doesn’t serve to increase Black Friday sales, just spread them out over a few extra hours. Hence, some malls are staying closed on Thanksgiving this year.
But while [mall chain CEO Stephen Lebovitz] says giving mall and store employees the holiday off was the primary motivation for the decision to close, sales were also not getting an overall boost from being open that extra day. “The sales tended to spread out over a longer period of time, but they weren’t increasing,’’ he says. “The other factor was we felt Black Friday had traditionally been a really fun, exciting experience for the shopper and that it was losing some of its luster and being diluted . … A lot of the ‘doorbusters’ and specials were moving to Thanksgiving and weren’t being offered on Black Friday as has traditionally been done in the past.’’
That should make all those people who’ve protested the creep of Black Friday into Thanksgiving the past few years a little happier. But also, I look at the depiction of Black Friday as “fun” and “exciting” and wonder exactly what color the sky is in Lebovitz’s world. More on that in a bit.
USA Today goes on to note that more and more shoppers are moving their holiday shopping online this year, and spreading it out over a longer period. Mashable observed the same thing at the start of the month, suggesting that Amazon had just “killed” Black Friday by beginning its “Black Friday” sales on November 1. It’s even added a clever little “Package X-Ray” gimmick allowing iPhone-owning customers to tell what’s inside a given Amazon package by scanning the bar code. (It’s apparently not available for Android yet.)
More recently, Recode has posted a guest op-ed suggesting that Black Friday isn’t so much “dead” as irrelevant. Bayard Winthrop, CEO of clothing e-tailer American Giant and co-author of a book about online retail brand-building, lays the blame at the feet of millennials who are too well-informed now to fall for the “smoke and mirrors” of alleged Black Friday super-savings. He suggests that the online retail industry has created “a virtual ‘series’ of ‘Black Fridays’ throughout the season” by offering deals that are more relevantly targeted than simply chopping the price for the first X number of customers to hit the brick-and-mortar store.
Traditional retail is stuck in an old business model, demanding high operational leverage and saddling these brands with baggage: Expensive cost structures, pricy rent and real estate, and huge inventory burdens. With customers leaving for online brands, top-line growth has faltered, tipping into a toxic financial environment that creates a death trap for these businesses.
I wonder, though, whether Winthrop is right to place most of the blame on millennials rather than looking in the opposite direction. My evidence is purely anecdotal, but I happen to know that my parents haven’t set foot in a store on Black Friday in a good many years. Their generation doesn’t have the energy levels or endurance of we younger folk, and they’ve never found Black Friday to be “fun” or “exciting.” More like exhausting.
Their rationale for eschewing Black Friday in recent years hasn’t been so much finding better deals online as it has been avoiding the sheer exhaustion of struggling with crowds, winter weather, and city traffic off-line. They don’t look for more “relevant” sales; they’re just happy to be able to find any sales at all that let them do all their holiday shopping from the comfort of their own home. In that respect, they look at Amazon as a godsend. And this is the generation that was making Black Friday a “thing” before Amazon was even a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’s eye.
And that brings me around to ebooks, which are effectively the antithesis of bricks-and-mortar retail. As they have no physical presence, you can’t buy ebooks themselves in a brick-and-mortar retail store. Indeed, Amazon recently discontinued its experiment with tying specific ebooks to physical gift cards. So if you’re wanting to give someone an ebook for Christmas, going online is the only way. (Not that I expect many people are going to get ebooks for Christmas. They aren’t the sort of thing from which you can tear off the wrapping paper, which still has an attraction for many. Ebook readers, on the other hand…)
It probably doesn’t hurt that the Kindle platform is by far the most popular way to read ebooks these days, and it’s much easier to buy a Kindle online than off–especially with Amazon slashing its device prices for the Black Friday season. That has to be another factor putting the bite on the traditional retail Black Friday, since exactly that kind of pricey electronic gadget has been one of the big drivers in holiday shopping of late. Why fight the madding crowds at Best Buy when you can have it delivered to your own or your gift recipient’s door without putting in the effort?
When you get right down to it, the only reason Black Friday thrived for so long is that it was a necessary evil–shoppers simply didn’t have a better way to get the best deals. But now that they do, a lot of them are finding that it’s now an evil that’s considerably less “necessary.”
Stores such as Best Buy have been retooling to try to compete with Amazon, but there’s only so much they can do. It seems doubtful brick and mortar retail is in any danger of drying up and blowing away, but physical stores are still seeing their revenues drop off even during what has always been traditionally the busiest time of their year. Online shopping is easier, and much less tiresome.
It’s probably just as well for physical bookstores such as Barnes & Noble that plenty of people still want their dead trees, and dead trees are easier to wrap and give to others. The irony is that, since gift buyers and recipients are different people, not everyone who receives a paper book would necessarily prefer it over digital. But then, that’s what gift receipts are for. Perhaps ebooks will be a bigger driver of post-holiday returns and exchanges as recipients of dead trees exchange them to buy the electrons. (And perhaps Shelfie should consider running a post-holiday promotion encouraging customers to keep the paper and pay a small fee to add the ebook instead.)