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Laura's Word 28 November 2013

Trends and Insight 0 Add to collection

Pondering the future of Black Friday. Happy Thanksgiving!

Laura's Word 28 November 2013

This week the USA goes pumpkin pie and pilgrim crazy as the pre-Christmas pick-me-up of Thanksgiving rolls around. Northern Hemisphere winters would be insufferable were it not for the schedule of festivities that requires family, creative alcohol and twinkly lights. So I’m actually pretty envious of my American friends who get to shoehorn an extra set of parties into the month between Halloween and the start of the Christmas party season. But there’s one thing I just can’t get my head around – well, two if you count sweet potato with marshmallows – and that’s Black Friday.


If Thanksgiving is about spending time with family and friends and re-appraising the important things in life, Black Friday is a fight to the death for cut-price Christmas presents. People queue for hours for the pleasure of climbing over the mangled remains of fellow shoppers and, well, I can’t imagine anything more unpleasant. Don’t get me wrong, as a Brit I entirely approve of the concept of queuing but there’s a time and a place, people. Maybe it’s an effective way to burn off all that turkey and aforementioned sweet potato abomination, but I can’t fathom the mentality that would choose to cut their party short on Thursday in order to be first in line on Friday.

Black Friday is a big event for brands and, consequently, the ad industry. But while I should probably attempt some analysis from an industry point of view, my immediate instinct is one of sympathy with the poor souls manning the barricades. Megastores like Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target and Best Buy will be kicking off their sales not on Friday but on Thursday, the day of Thanksgiving itself, making it impossible for workers to spend time with their own families. Back in 2008, a Wal-Mart employee was even trampled to death after getting in the way of a surging crowd of shoppers.  

As a student, I worked at a large UK clothing chain known for its hysteria-inducing summer and Boxing Day sales. My job was to squeeze through the hoards of feral middle-aged women who had left their manners in the car park and pick up the piles of clothes that had fallen onto the floor. It was hot, it was loud and it was bewildering. And yet that was only a sliver of the intensity of a Black Friday sale day.  If Dante is correct that hell is ‘proximity without intimacy’, I can’t imagine anything more diabolical. Give me fiery pits and demons with pointy sticks any day.

There is some hope for beleaguered shoppers and retail staff.  DDB’s recent Life Style Survey found that most people in the US prefer to hang back on shopping during the Thanksgiving week, opting to stock up for Christmas on weeknights and weekends. So is the hype of Black Friday wearing thin? And might brands and retailers garner more goodwill helping people to avoid the sale day scrum? 

No wonder ‘Cyber Monday’, the first Monday after Thanksgiving when online sales surge, is such a rapidly growing phenomenon. The Adobe Digital Index predicts that this year Cyber Monday will generate sales of $2.27 billion in the US, up from $1.5 billion last year. And Cyber Monday isn’t just restricted to the US – it’s an international phenomenon. Sites like Amazon are the obvious winners from this growth in online shopping, but it will be interesting to see how platforms like Etsy and the UK’s Not On the High Street that offer more individual gifts fare and develop over coming Christmas shopping seasons. After all, online shopping doesn’t have to be impersonal. 

I wonder if the ‘Black Friday’ phenomenon might even turn out to be a victim of its own success. News footage of thronging mobs spilling into malls might indicate continually ringing cash registers, but they could also be building up a rather negative Black Friday ‘brand’. As online shopping continues to lure us away with its promise of convenience, physical retailers might have to rethink their shopping experience and sales strategy if they are to keep footfall high in years to come. 

But by far the most interesting point to emerge from DDB’s Life Style Survey, though, was the insight that all the rampant gift-buying that happens between Thanksgiving and Christmas might be a waste of time. 31 % of the US adults interviewed said they’d rather get cash for Christmas, with another 14 % saying they’d like gift cards. The thought of giving friends and grown up family members money might feel a bit weird and a little lame. However, I’ve long suspected that ‘thoughtful’ gifts are more often a poorly cloaked method of communicating to our loved ones just how quirky, interesting, minted or ‘funny’ we are. 

“Gift-giving is as much about the giver as it is about the recipient,” says Denise Delahorne, SVP/Group Strategy Director at DDB Worldwide. “People don’t like giving cash as much as they like getting it.  Most of us want to feel happy about the gift we are giving and while there are those who consider giving cash as a last resort type of gift, many feel that giving money suggests you don’t care about the recipient.”   

The finding might indicate a growing weariness with the inundation of never-to-be-used toiletry sets and novelty socks. It might also show that people are getting fed up of nearly bankrupting themselves every December and would quite like to recoup their losses. It might be a hangover from years of pay freezes and pay cuts following the recession. Or maybe they’re growing more aware of the wastefulness that accompanies the festive season. Whatever is driving this trend, it shows that just because people are playing their part and spending money on gifts because of perceived social norms and expectations, they may be doing so grudgingly. 

Festive spending is increasing annually in the USA, the UK and elsewhere and this week’s Black Friday looks set to be another bonanza for retailers, but the rise of the Cyber Shopper and ‘just give me the cash, please Santa’ attitudes could change this highlight of the shopping calendar in years to come.

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