Is This the Death of Black Friday?

Black Friday is a week away, and the news is full of stories anticipating retailing’s version of New Year’s Eve. But this year will be different – a lot different, I think – so much so that I wonder if Black Friday as we know it is dying.

The designation of the day after Thanksgiving as the traditional start of the holiday shopping season has been with us for decades. The first uses of the term have been traced to early 1960s Philadelphia, where the retail universe revolved around Wanamaker’s department store. Fifty years later the retail landscape couldn’t be more different, and changes in consumer habits and new approaches from retailers seem to be conspiring to radically change the Black Friday ritual.

More shoppers never leave home

The most obvious change, of course, is online shopping, which last year accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total spent last year during the Black Friday weekend. That’s up from 23 percent five years earlier. Back in 2006, the vast majority of online shopping happened on desktop computers. Remember, the iPhone didn’t come along until the next year. By 2011, smartphones were being widely used in the shopping, and this year seems poised to be the year of shopping with a tablet. So many device options will make standing in line for a television even less appealing.

While retailers certainly still want customers in stores so they can make impulse buys, they’ve recognized that online shoppers want bargains too. This year, that has them offering some of the same Black Friday deals to online customers that had in years past been reserved for shoppers in stores. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal story on this shift quoted Gibu Thomas, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of mobile and retail, as saying, “If you’ve taken the time to invest in building a relationship with Wal-Mart, we want to make sure we take care of you, especially on a really busy day for our customers.”

Friday starting on Thursday, or before

Wal-Mart and other retailers have been opening earlier and earlier on Friday morning. This year a number of them announced they’d push into the Thanksgiving holiday itself and stay open all night Thursday. Depending on how this goes over with the nation’s Thanksgiving chefs, the change seems likely to further disperse the door-buster crowds.

Some of those shoppers no doubt have already done their Black Friday shopping, as plenty of retailers started promoting offers this week and even last week. As James Brown, senior director of Merchant Services at told ABCNews, “Everybody is racing to get to the consumer dollars as fast as possible.”

None of this adds up to a decline in sales for retailers – far from it. They will continue to leverage this annual rite to drive revenues. But they’ll do it in different ways than buying truckloads of this year’s hot item and lining up customers in the cold. And if you’ve ever spent a day off from work standing in the cold, you’d have to agree that’s certainly not a bad thing.

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