Holiday Shopping: Is Thursday the New (Black) Friday?

November 20th, 2013

Professor Barbara BickertA number of large retailers will open for sales as early as 6:00 p.m. Thanksgiving night. Despite some backlash on social media and other retailers announcing they would not open before “Black Friday” in order to give their employees the entire holiday off, there seems to be strong consumer interest in getting those “early bird” and “doorbuster” deals.

Barbara Bickart is an associate professor of marketing at the School of Management and an authority on consumer decision-making processes. In a Q&A with Professor Voices, Bickart explains what shopping on Thanksgiving says about retailers and consumers alike, and the potential economic impact. Is Thursday really the new (Black) Friday or is it just a marketing gimmick?

Professor Voices: What does it say about the retailers that will open for sales Thanksgiving night?

Barbara Bickart: The Black Friday weekend is so important for retailers and the competition for consumers is so fierce that retailers are willing to do whatever is necessary to gain market share and sales.  Retailers believe that if competitors are opening earlier and offering more deals, they could lose out.  The possibility of being a consumer’s first choice for holiday shopping has a large potential payoff that outweighs the possible risks associated with backlash, particularly when there are six fewer shopping days before Christmas this year.  Some stores, like Walmart, are starting Black Friday a week early, both in the store and online.  It is clearly competitive forces and the desire to at least meet or beat the competition that is driving these decisions and the Black Friday “creep.”

PV: What does it say about the consumers who will go shopping Thanksgiving night?

BB: There could be different reasons that consumers shop on Thanksgiving night.  Probably most important, many consumers look forward to the deals on Black Friday.  The earlier start to shopping could be very enticing for these deal-seeking consumers, who are motivated by the thrill of finding a bargain.  In addition, many consumers are likely to believe that if they don’t shop on Thanksgiving night, they will miss out on the deals.  This idea that deals are “scarce” is a big motivator for shoppers to get to the stores early and make purchases.  Finally, there may be a group of consumers who enjoy the ritual of shopping on Black Friday and see the earlier time as a way to expand the ritual.  It also may feel less hectic and stressful to shop on Thanksgiving night, compared to the early morning hours of Black Friday.

PV: Are retailers really offering better deals on Thanksgiving night than on Black Friday or is it just a marketing tool to get shoppers in the door?

BB: It is my understanding that the deals on Thanksgiving will actually be better than those on Black Friday.  Retailers may feel that consumers need an extra incentive to push away from the table on Thanksgiving evening and head out to the mall.  Retailers are also making these deals seem less risky—for example, by guaranteeing that customers shopping on Thanksgiving will receive the product on deal before Christmas, even if it sells out that night.  Retailers need to convince consumers that shopping on Thanksgiving is worth the time, effort and disruption to the holiday, so at least until the shopping ritual is established I would expect the Thanksgiving deals to be better than those on Black Friday.

PV: Will starting the holiday shopping season earlier do anything for the economy or improve holiday spending?

BB: It’s not clear that an earlier start to holiday shopping will increase spending or improve the economy.  Most people have fixed budgets for holiday gifts, so it seems more likely that spending will be shifted to an earlier time period, but not necessarily increased.  In addition, if the Thanksgiving Day deals are really better, it could reduce margins and profits overall.

PV: What do you think about the backlash against stores opening earlier on Thanksgiving night rather than later?

BB: While there is a vocal backlash against Thanksgiving Day shopping on social media, my best guess is that it will have limited impact on shopping behavior.  The decision is a tough one for retailers.  For some retailers, such as Nordstrom and Costco, the decision to remain closed is consistent with their brand image and may resonate with their core consumer.  Due to negative feedback from their customers, Apple actually reversed an earlier decision to open several stores on Thanksgiving Day.  At the same time, stores with a more value-oriented customer such as K-Mart and Walmart are less likely to be affected by the backlash.  The idea of preserving the holiday is emotional and likely to elicit strong response.  On the other hand, speaking out in support of Thanksgiving Day shopping is not likely to be perceived as socially desirable.  Supporters may not be participating in the online debate, but will likely show up in the stores to take advantage of the deals.

PV: Based on blue laws in Massachusetts, do you think people who live near the borders of New Hampshirt and Vermont, will cross state lines on Thanksgiving Day to shop?

BB: Yes!  I don’t think the blue laws will keep these people from getting in their cars and driving across borders to seek out deals.

Contact Bickart at 617-353-3458 or Twitter: @babickart.

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