retail watch | Nov 24, 2021 |
When it comes to Black Friday, never say never again

When Target CEO Brian Cornell announced earlier this week that his big retail chain would “never” open on Thanksgiving Day again, you could hear the cheers not just from the company’s 400,000-plus employees, but also from social chroniclers everywhere.

Target had already said it wouldn’t be open on Turkey Day this year, so this news was just an affirmation that the policy change is now permanent. It was also a totally and completely meaningless gesture.

Let’s face it: Black Friday (and the entire Thanksgiving weekend shopping hysteria) is essentially over—a moment in retail history that has passed. Sure, COVID had much to do with it, as shoppers no longer felt comfortable getting up close and personal with fellow bargain hunters to storm the retail Bastille at daybreak. But the age of consumer doorbusters was already waning, thanks to that little thing called e-commerce. As online buying started to gain acceptance and then exploded over the past few years, there was not-so-suddenly an alternative to in-person shopping, and Black Friday’s appeal quickly diminished.

Going to a store on Thanksgiving was a relatively recent phenomenon. For much of modern history, the very idea of stores being open on the holiday—much less people getting up from the dinner table and football games—was preposterous. (Though the fact that in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week to better accommodate holiday shopping should have hinted this was bound to happen.)

It wasn’t until 2012 that the first stores opened on the holiday itself—and even then, usually late in the afternoon or early evening—but the idea caught on quickly. Retailers being the ultimate lemmings, it didn’t take long for most national chains to get with the program and throw open their doors on Thanksgiving, with some even staying open 24 hours a day throughout the weekend. Local news stations loved the story and couldn’t wait to interview people, their shirts still stained with gravy, out fighting for precious flat-screen TVs, blenders and ugly Christmas sweaters.

It was only in the year or two before COVID that some retailers started to rethink the in-person sales blitz, as they realized that online shopping was serving the same purpose. Even better, people could click “buy” with their left hands while still holding a turkey leg with their right.

This year, most retailers have made the decision not to open on Thanksgiving Day, although this is not universal. Many of the big national drug chains, as well as supermarkets, dollar stores and a few general merchandise retailers (like Old Navy, Michaels, Bass Pro Shops and Big Lots), will open for at least part of Thursday. No doubt they will not want for customers.

In fact, this entire holiday shopping season is forecast to be outstanding, with both in-store and online business expected to set records. It’s fair to say Americans are determined to shop until they drop (hopefully as a result of buying exhaustion rather than COVID). We as a nation are very resilient when it comes to conspicuous consumption.

Which brings us back to Target and Cornell’s statement. Certainly, his intentions are good and his heart is in the right spot, but c’mon folks: Can he really speak for what’s going to happen next year, much less five years down the road? And what happens when his successor and his successor’s successor decide to do things differently?

This Friday is likely to be more Grayish than Black when it comes to holiday shopping, but no matter: We’re all just happy to be here to celebrate. Pass the cranberries.

Homepage image: Black Friday shoppers | ©Sharkshock/Adobe Stock

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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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