retail watch | Nov 24, 2023 |
Black Friday is history. Meet Gray Friday

Attention, shoppers: Don’t be surprised if this is the year that Black Friday finally loses its position as the biggest shopping day of the year.

As consumers hunker down for the annual feeding frenzy of the holiday shopping season, the unprecedented onslaught of early promotional activity that started earlier this fall may be the last straw in Black Friday’s slow-but-steady decline as the pinnacle of conspicuous consumption.

Retailers can blame the shift on Amazon (after all, we blame it for just about everything else in the retail business), but also Walmart, Target and socially conscious retailers like REI—not to mention American consumers at large, who have discovered over the past few years that what they want can not only be bought early online but can also be ordered on December 23 and still show up under the tree in time for Christmas morning.

Let’s review the status quo first. Black Friday remains the number one shopping day of the year for the retail business, according to inventory visibility and retail security firm Sensormatic.

If you must know, here are the projected next nine biggest shopping days this year:

  • Super Saturday on December 23
  • The third Saturday in December on December 16
  • The Friday before Christmas on December 22
  • The Saturday after Black Friday on November 25
  • Boxing Day on December 26
  • The second Saturday in December on December 9
  • The first Saturday in December on December 2
  • The Saturday after Christmas on December 30
  • The Sunday before Christmas on December 17

(It’s worth noting that Sensormatic deals only with physical stores, so these dates do not take online shopping days like Cyber Monday into account.)

Retailers typically lick their lips over years like this one, where Christmas is a Monday and shoppers can still do all their last-minute buying the weekend right before. It’s why Super Saturday on December 23 should be insanely busy across the retail universe.

But missing from these benchmark dates is the slow-but-steady trickle of promotional activity that began in early October and has continued pretty much nonstop ever since. Amazon set the official starting point with its Prime Big Deal Days on October 10 and 11. The online juggernaut originally used the Prime Day designation for a midsummer event designed to drive business during a period when people were doing crazy things like going to the beach and taking family vacations rather than being glued to their screens clicking Buy buttons. In 2022, it added the second event in the fall, clearly designating it as a “buy-now” sale to get a jump on holiday purchases.

When Amazon decides to hold its events, the rest of the retail world reacts. Walmart did Amazon’s two-day event one better with its four-day Holiday Kickoff sale. Target said if two days are good and four are better, a whole week must be best, and it launched Circle Week in October. The rest of the retail lemmings, not wanting to miss out, jumped aboard with their own promotions; now, just about every big national chain had some sort of a sale in those first two weeks of October. Confirming the trend, the National Retail Federation recently reported that 43 percent of consumers were planning to start making holiday purchases before November.

Ever since, it’s been Black-Friday-a-go-go with all kinds of deals under that banner—and therein lies the real Black Friday erosion that we’re seeing this year. How can the day after Thanksgiving really compete with the nonstop promotional parade consumers have seen for the past two months?

Retailers themselves have also tried to tone down the more ugly aspects of that post–Turkey Day phenomenon by reverting back to being closed for the Thursday holiday and not opening at o-dark-hundred on Friday. Yes, there are still doorbusters and the local TV stations will no doubt send out camera crews to record people storming their local stores as if they were the Bastille during the French Revolution, but it won’t have quite the same intensity of years gone by.

That’s not to say that there won’t be big deals to be had. Consumer finance platform WalletHub, which seems to monitor such things, ranked the average discounts it expected to see this year and they are substantial: JCPenney leads the way with an average discount of 59.1 percent, followed by Macy’s at 58.2 percent, Belk at 54.8 percent, Kohl’s at 48.8 percent and Target at 32.7 percent.

Retail analyst Angela Thompson, writing in The Robin Report newsletter for retail executives, speculated that although the pre–Black Friday promotional activity continues to accelerate, retailers need to keep things in perspective. “While this creep of deals is shifting how retailers plan their promotions, none of them would be wise to resist this current trend of early promotions. Pressure on retailers to perform and comp year-over-year sales suggests that they have seen consumers react positively to the earlier holiday push. The key question remains: Is this drip too much for consumers?”

Specifically for the home furnishings sector, Black Friday is a bit of a nonevent in many cases. After all, how many people are buying couches and credenzas that day? The category differs from sweaters and giant TVs—and besides, they don’t fit under the tree. The home product sweet spot for holiday shopping has less to do with furniture and more to do with the latest kitchen appliance doodad and maybe a set of towels.

But whatever the product and wherever it’s bought, it’s quite likely we are at the tipping point in shopping patterns in 2023. This will be the year when Black Friday finally gives up its exalted position as the peak point of shopping activity.

It’s why Gray Friday may become its new name in the years ahead. Somehow, it doesn’t have quite the same cache—but it will all be there in black and white.


Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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