In recent years, the shopping mayhem that is Black Friday has shown no signs of slowing; in fact, it’s creeping into the American holiday that immediately precedes it. The common reality for a lot of U.S. families on Thanksgiving has been that they first gather around a table to share a hearty meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie … and then they (or at least certain members of the household) go off to line up in the predawn hours outside big box stores or the local shopping mall for the chance to purchase holiday gifts at a discount.
This year, however, there are indications that the trend is turning, and it’s being instigated on the retailers’ side — with major companies scaling back or opting out of Black Friday promotions altogether.
While Black Friday may bring a boost in sales, it also has done damage to many a retailer’s image in recent years. Thanksgiving is widely perceived as one of the purest and most wholesome of American holidays, with roots that have managed to stay deeply grounded in family, tradition and spending quality time with loved ones. Black Friday, in a stark contrast, has a reputation for bringing out the ugliest in American consumerism and cutthroat behavior that has been scrutinized heavily in the media at home and abroad.
Every year there are reports of fights, crowds charging entryways and people trampling their fellow shoppers all to get to a better deal faster — in some cases, causing serious injury and even death. A website has even sprung up, macabrely named BlackFridayDeathCount.com, which tracks the number of deaths and injuries attributed to the shopping event.
Despite the negative associations of Black Friday, retailers and shoppers alike can’t seem to help themselves. Year after year, like clockwork, the ads will start to appear online, in stores and on television, and consumers are lured by the promise of big savings on popular and expensive holiday gift items. In 2014, an estimated 87 million people visited a retail location on the Friday after Thanksgiving, spending $50.9 million over the four-day weekend. Expensive technology items like televisions, video game consoles and handheld devices sell well annually and make up for a large part of the pre-Black Friday ad onslaught. Dolls, toys and bicycles also fair well year over year, as these are popular holiday gifts for children.
Some unexpected items also seem to be consistent best-sellers, including kitchen gadgets and linens. In 2013, Walmart’s best-selling item was a bath towel, which sold 2.8 million units across all stores, suggesting that people may not just be buying gifts on Black Friday but picking up household necessities as well. The opportunity for retailers is huge, and many brands seem to do the math and feel that the rewards in the form of increased profits outweigh the potential risks of personal injury and social backlash.
In recent years, though, many brands have started to rewrite the playbook for how responsible retailers can score points with customers and employees alike.
DSW, for one, used its Facebook page to announce its stores would be closed on Thanksgiving Day — which has become de rigueur for brands looking to get a jump on Friday sales — stating that “family comes first.” Outdoor retailer REI went a step further, stating it will not only not open on Thanksgiving but also remain closed on Black Friday, giving its employees a paid day off and encouraging them to spend some time away from commerce.
As many as 20 retailers have made similar public statements regarding Thanksgiving hours in the past few years, marking a pointed jab at early-bird Black Friday sales — which have seen declining attendance, dropping from 45 million in 2013 to 25.6 million in 2014. While the numbers may have decreased, heavy hitters like Macy’s opened on Thanksgiving in 2014, while Kmart, Target, Toys”R”Us, Gap and Best Buy were also open for part of the federal holiday.
As retailers try to beat each other to the punch, opening early and offering deals and discounts even earlier in the month of November, they may be undercutting their own efforts. In 2014 the holiday weekend sales saw a dip, which some analysts attribute to brands discounting items too early in the month, effectively watering down consumer anticipation and excitement of Black Friday sales themselves. Last year, roughly 30 percent of Black Friday visits to stores actually took place before midnight on Thursday, compared to 18 percent the previous year, according to data from shopkick.
“The consumer has gotten a lot smarter,” David Bassuk, managing director and coleader of the global retail practice at AlixPartners, told Fortune. “Retailers created their own pain and suffering by bringing a lot of deals into the week before Black Friday. It diminished the excitement… It’s made Black Friday a non-event.”
Opening on Thanksgiving can also take a bite out of a brand’s loyalty efforts. Deep discounts associated with the holiday tend to attract shoppers less interested in a long-term relationship with a brand than in finding a great deal. Shoppers that come out for these types of events are commonly “deal seekers” rather than loyal, repeat customers, and the money that brands spend to attract them to their stores may not see the long-term payoff they are seeking.
Whether their decisions were purely business-based or ethical — or a combination thereof — the fact that retailers themselves are the ones working to keep Black Friday from creeping into Thanksgiving has got to be one of the biggest early surprises of the holiday season.