By now, you’ve taken stock of the best that Black Friday has to offer. It’s a technologist’s favorite holiday, when brand-name, top-of-the-line electronics suffer seriously slashed prices in exchange for devoted consumerism.
But is it worth it? Not only have brick-and-mortar retailers felt the push of Cyber Monday sales, but some companies like Amazon and eBay are beating in-store retailers to the punch by opening for business Thanksgiving morning. The lure and ease of the Internet has also evolved e-commerce and altered the shopper’s frame of mind, which all might be heralding the end of Black Friday as we once knew it. Is e-commerce turning Black Friday into a quaint antiquity, or does the tradition of sidewalk camping still yield the best deals?
Is Black Friday a dying institution of American capitalism?
Some experts suggest that braving the Black Friday lines is just no longer worth it.
“I personally would never advise someone to shop in-store on Black Friday,” says DealNews CEO Dan de Grandpre. “The savings are great. The question is: How much money are you saving for getting something and giving up a vacation day, versus buying one online and staying home?”
There are more than a few reasons to sit out Black Friday: the cold, the crowds, the pushing, the shoving, the general hysteria. “What is your time worth to you?” de Grandpre asks, suggesting you’re likely to find the same item online within $50 to $100, or even the same price. “The trend every year is that the deals online are almost as good, if you look at them as a whole.”
In fact, sometimes you can even get a better deal. “If you’re looking for higher end electronics, stay away from the stores,” he says, explaining that many of those cheap tablets and laptops you’re seeing are decent options for first-time users and kids, but they aren’t powerful devices. Better choices with high-quality graphics cards or more storage will come around Cyber Monday week, and keep an eye out for discounts on high-end TVs around Superbowl season.
The convenience factor is also hugely detrimental to in-store Black Friday shopping. Not only could you engage in what’s being called “couch commerce” and save your time and sanity, but your money too. “Thank about how much gas the average American uses on multiple shopping trips during the holidays,” says SortPrice CEO Doron Simovitch. “Online shopping takes that cost out of the equation completely.”
Everyday is Black Friday
The saturation of daily deal services on the market means deep discounts aren’t quite the novelty they used to be. Every morning, many of us are greeted by a friendly run down of slashed prices on local goods and services from Groupon, LivingSocial, Google Offers, Amazon Local Offers, the list it goes on and on.
Now, many of these sites are beginning to offer products and holiday promotions. Of course flash shopping services like Gilt Groupe (which will open for special sales at 6 a.m. EST Friday morning) are even more tailored to finding the lowest prices on in-demand items. Are they hurting the lure of what’s traditionally been a holy day for coupon clippers?
Not yet, says de Grandpre. And that’s mainly because of the nature of Black Friday’s big products. “Black Friday is a much more heavy electronics day,” he says. While some daily deal sites have featured tech discounts, de Grandpre claims “the deals are frankly terrible.”
That doesn’t mean we aren’t witnessing an evolution in shopping and e-commerce that could eventually hinder Black Friday’s impact. “This could all change as [those sites] focus more on products. Right now they are sort of only for services.”
So if you’re drooling over the cut prices on brand name TVs, laptops, tablets, and cameras, don’t hedge your bets on these options. Flash-sale sites and Groupon-types might not steal shopping thunder this year, but our consumer-mindset is definitely being molded by this trend. It’s possible that the simple abundance of deals at our disposal make sacrificing for Black Friday seem less worth it.
“We’re kind of conditioned to think that we can find that rush of saving money every day of the year, thanks to daily deals,” says FreeWarranty CEO Tom Forrest. “It’s maybe taken a little bit of the luster out of standing in the cold, hoping for that discount.”
Of course, it’s not only daily discounts: Various Web-based tools for saving money are eternally at our fingertips. FreeWarranty, which partners with retailers to extend manufacturers’ warranties on electronics and consumer goods, is one example. But there are too many tools like this to count.
“In-store shoppers get blinded by the door-buster, they don’t necessarily know what they’re getting is a good value in comparison to what’s available from other stores or brands,” says Forrest. “I think Black Friday, getting in line and shopping in the stores, can lead to irrational shopping, whereas online you have rational shopping.”
Mobile has changed the game
While daily discounts won’t take a significant bite out of chain stores’ Black Friday profits this year, there is one development that definitely will: the smartphone. According to the NPD Group, 59 percent of all U.S. handset sales in the third quarter of 2011 were smartphones. And these pocket computers are seriously swaying consumers who would otherwise buy that product then and there on Black Friday.
Enter the rise of the Black Friday browser. You used to have to take discount prices at face value, either doing your research well in advance to know you were getting the best deal, or hoping a retailer would price match if you didn’t get the best deal. Now there’s an app for that—and a variety of other Black Friday-related for instances. Shoppers are just as likely to peruse the goods at their favorite chain, snapping up barcodes via smartphone apps from the likes of eBay, Amazon, and others, using them to look for a better deal, in store or online.
“It’s too easy to find information,” says de Grandpre, who reasons there will be some shoppers who use smartphones for price comparison come Friday. It’s a sentiment Amazon’s Grace Chung echoes, referencing the companies Price Check app. “Smartphones offer a new opportunity for price transparency — we love that.”
Be aware, however, that retailers are growing wise to this game. Best Buy doesn’t display bar codes that smartphones can read, a move other stores have adopted as well, in order to discourage virtual shopping around.
Shapiro also mentions another tactic retailers rely: Making a deal with a manufacturer and changing the model number so consumers have a harder time comparing prices.
As with everything, there are workarounds. “I would find the specs on an item and use those to search and find out if it’s a good deal,” says de Grandpre.
In defense of Black Friday
But there are holdouts. GottaDeal’s Dev Shapiro is a defendant of the in-store Black Friday tradition. Partially, this is for practical purposes.
“With the way technology is, you have thousands, sometimes million of people hitting a Website all at once on these shopping days, and you’re not guaranteed an item,” he says. He references the countless many who purchase bargain electronics and other holiday gifts online, only to later receive an email informing them their order won’t be fulfilled because the item was oversold. “That really upsets people,” he says.
He’s right: the only way to entirely avoid such heartache is to hold that product in your likely-frostbitten-from-the-early-morning-cold hands.
Obviously, brick-and-mortar retailers have found a winning formula. Stores are opening earlier and earlier, and much of that can be attributed to consumer demand. Shapiro even mentions that Target is beta testing opening Denver, Colorado stores for Thanksgiving Day. If buyers are happy and it’s a success, the entire chain could implement the change next year.
But what about nostalgia? “People have been doing Black Friday long before the Internet became a popular way of shopping,” he says. “With online shopping, you are sitting in your underwear at the computer and when the time comes for the online sales you click here and click there. Then you are done and wait a week for the mail.”
There’s definitely a hunter-meets-its-prey element to the in-store Black Friday experience that some shoppers just can’t refuse. And as Shapiro puts it, “If you do online shopping, and not shopping in the stores, you have one less place to wear those ugly holiday sweaters.”
In the end, e-commerce has been a game changer and its impact will be felt again this year. “The best brick and mortar retailers can hope for is a repeat of last year’s number,” says Simovitch. “With more online shopping options plus a continued sluggish economy, it’s likely online sales will dominate in-store sales by perhaps the widest margin ever.”