Forget Black Friday and Cyber Monday — For most retailers, it’s really about December sales

By now hopefully folks are beginning to accept that Black Friday and Cyber Monday are mostly media events—some would say “media traps”—that actually reveal next to nothing about how the holiday season will ultimately turn out. Moreover, aside from the generally hard to get “door busters,” the best deals are often found over the next several weeks, not on the two days that generate the most hype, er, I mean, attention.

As many journalists and analysts continue to point out, as (crafty? greedy? desperate?) retailers chase market share, more and more promotions that were once exclusive to Black Friday now break days, or even weeks, before Americans shift from one form of massive consumption to another. If my inbox is any indication, many sales were not only extended over the weekend but well beyond the rather unfortunately named Cyber Monday. And the hits just keep on coming.

If we were really honest, a trait historians tell us was once valued in regular citizens and national leaders alike, overall industry and any given retailer’s performance has little to do with the two days that get all the press and almost everything to do with the month of December.

The most obvious reason is that the volume done in the 24 days leading up to the Christmas is massively greater than on either Black Friday or Cyber Monday—not to mention the six days that comprise that entire long weekend. In fact, the typical pattern is that most retailers see an appreciable dip in traffic the week or so after the Thanksgiving weekend and then volume builds to a crescendo the weekend before Christmas—with “Super Saturday,” contrary to rumor, turning out to be the biggest shopping day of the year. For online sales the pattern is a bit different, but the ubiquity of free 2-day shipping guarantees very high volume days in the week before the shipping window closes.

The second, and often neglected, reason is that the week after Christmas is, arguably, even more important than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. For most retailers success during what some call “X 13” (signifying volume that sometimes rivals other months of the year) is incredibly important as consumers show up in droves to buy for themselves, often using gift cards they received for Christmas or Hanukkah.

The third factor, which speaks to the criticality of December, comes down to margin. Most of the press coverage on holiday shopping speaks to traffic patterns, sales volume and “record e-commerce days.” (Spoiler alert: With online shopping growing at 15-17% year over year just about every day is going to be a record day. The only news would be if it didn’t happen.) Woefully little space is devoted to whether those increases bear any relationship to profitability.

Since the month of December can easily account for well over 25% of many retailers total volume for the year, simple math tells you it is a big driver of earnings. And because every day we move later into winter products that are geared to the season (“giftable” items most notably, but winter apparel as well) begin to lose their value, retailers get greater insight into whether they are moving these products fast enough. For consumers this means some of the best deals of the season will occur right after Christmas. For retailers, if they are agile enough, this means that as each day passes they have the opportunity to evolve promotions to meet competition, accelerate sell-through rates and try to optimize margin performance. Promotions designed for Black Friday and Cyber Monday are more guesses. Throughout December, they can start to be more finely honed.

As a writer and someone who often gets interviewed by the press for my perspective on shopping trends, I appreciate the click-bait benefits of Black Friday and Cyber Monday stories and related provocative and catchy commentary. But for years my take has been mostly “move along, nothing to see here.”  The real action is in the month of December, and, in particular every day today forward.

But I guess “Black December” isn’t quite as catchy.

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.  

 

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