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.  

 

Cyber Monday and the world’s easiest retail prediction

There are a lot of things that are hard to know about the future of retail. Predicting that Cyber Monday will set a record is not among them.

One doesn’t need a team of analysts, the latest in machine learning algorithms, IBM Watson or a Ph.D in statistics to come to this conclusion. One just needs to acknowledge that e-commerce has been growing on average about 15% year over year for the last several years.

So while I have not seen a precise breakout, I’m willing to guess that e-commerce set a record just about every day this year–and has done so for many years. It’s been true for the Saturday before Christmas, for Thanksgiving, for Black Friday last year and the year before that and the year before that. And it will be true for this Thursday and next Wednesday. And I’m willing to bet it will be true in 2019 as well.

Whether the specific increase on any given day will vary much from the longer-term trend will largely be a function of the intensity of promotional offers, consumer confidence and the vagaries of weather (which can affect folks’ willingness to go to a store as well as whether seasonal merchandise does unusually well or not). Given this–and without the benefit of any sophisticated tools–my guess is Cyber Monday sales will be up around 20%.  Check in with me tomorrow to see how I did.

Of course whether I or anyone else is mostly right or mostly wrong means just about nothing. There is no news value in the predictions and there is very little strategic import in the actual outcome. Retailers have already ordered their merchandise for the holiday season. A good chunk of staffing and marketing is already decided upon. For the most part, the retailers with winning digital value propositions will run increases better than the averages and the losers will cede relative share. We knew that going into today and we will know it tomorrow.

So the news is not in whether the industry numbers increased 17% or 27%. The news is not in any given retailer’s decision to offer 2 day free shipping or take their discount up to 25% over last year’s 20%. You don’t have to be a retail savant to decide to give margin away. Anyone can engage in a race to the bottom. The sad fact is you can be a pretty boring retailer and still post a decent sales increase on Cyber Monday if you are desperate enough.

No the real news concerns those retailers that are doing what it takes to be more remarkable day in and day out. That aren’t chasing their tails seducing the promiscuous customer. That aren’t continuing to swim in a sea of sameness where the only thing they can do to move the top-line is to give stuff away.

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.  

Since the article originally appeared the Cyber Monday specific numbers are in. Sales were up 19.3%. How sales and profits will turn out. Well who knows?

 

The mass hysteria we call ‘Black Friday’

I will admit that I have been more than a little Grinch-like about both Black Friday and its unfortunately named cousin “Cyber Monday” for some time. While it’s an exaggeration to say it’s all much ado about nothing, there are a few inconvenient truths about Black Friday that are worth remembering.

It’s not the biggest shopping day of the year. That will be December 22nd. I promise.

The deals are rarely all that good. Certainly many of the so-called “door busters” offer real savings, but bear in mind the best promotions usually have limited quantities and represent a minute percentage of any given brand’s offering. For the rest of the store discounts are typically better as we approach Christmas or, even more so, in the week after.

It’s less and less important every year. As online shopping continues to grow (my guess is an increase of ~ 16% this holiday season) the brick and mortar contribution piece is contracting. More importantly, in the last several years, many retailers offer discounts in advance of the actual day, and then extend those discounts over the weekend. And of course a lot of retailers are now open on Thanksgiving. This all serves to spread out consumer spending over the days before and after the actual Black Friday.

A great Black Friday (or Cyber Monday) is largely meaningless. Despite all the attention and craziness, for most retailers, less than 5% of total November/December sales occur on Black Friday. Given the heavy discounts the contribution to seasonal gross profits is even less.  Studies over the past decade have also shown that Black Friday success has little correlation with overall holiday performance. So move along, nothing to see here.

It’s far more cultural phenomenon, than useful shopping event. Does it make sense for retailers to extend their shopping hours, incur greater hassle and take a margin hit just to drive sales to this one day? Is it rational for so many consumers to get up super early, wait in massive lines and deal with throngs of people to get the exact same stuff you can get ordering from the comfort of your home only to have it show up hassle free at your home or office a couple of days later? No, we do it because we’ve always done it and because of the self-reinforcing media trap.

Isn’t it ironic? On Thursday, in the US at least, most of us are all grateful and thankful and reflective. On Friday, we push through the tryptophan and carb loading hangover and turn into weapons of massive consumption.

Please don’t tell anybody but one of my dirty little secrets is that despite my alleged “retail influencer” status I haven’t stepped inside a retail store or mall on a Black Friday in many years. It’s caused more than a few people to say “what kind of retail analyst are you anyway?”

My answer is always the same: The sane and serene kind.

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.  

I’m honored to have been named one of the top 5 retail voices on LinkedIn.  Thanks to all of you that continue to follow and share my work.

With Cyber Monday behind us, the real holiday shopping season begins

As I wrote last week, the noise around Black Friday and Cyber Monday is mostly a bunch of hype. Both days represent a relatively small percentage of total holiday sales, and are even less important when you consider their contributions to profits given the amount of discounting that occurs. Moreover, there is little evidence that a “good” Black Friday and/or Cyber Monday has anything to do with whether a particular retailer will have a successful quarter or not. It also turns out that many folks take advantage of the past week’s hot deals to buy for themselves, not for Christmas or Hanukkah gifts.

The fact is the overwhelming majority of holiday season revenue for virtually every retailer will occur over the next four weeks, not during the past few days. And, if history is any indication, there will be at least two shopping days ahead that will comfortably exceed Black Friday’s sales numbers. We can also expect that the weekend of December 15 will surpass Cyber Monday’s volume.

We should also not get overly excited by the year-over-year online shopping growth numbers. Merely extrapolating the trend would suggest that e-commerce would grow somewhere in the vicinity of 15%-17%, and that’s exactly what happened. To be sure, the overall shift away from physical store shopping is profound, but nothing unexpected is happening, at least thus far, when it comes to this particular holiday season.

Now that we’ve moved beyond the two hype-iest days of the retail year, let’s bear in mind that there are still 23 shopping days left between now and Christmas and a lot can still happen. We should also remember that the week after Christmas is very important, where big volumes are posted, gift cards are redeemed, returns are processed and the trajectory for seasonal clearance starts to be set.

The good news seems to be that many retailers’ report that their inventories are in solid shape in light of conservative buying patterns. While this suggests deals might not be quite as sharp for consumers as past holidays, the industry might actually have a chance to realize decent gross margins. Of course, some sectors–I’m looking at you department stores!–are in a fierce battle for market share. Several chains, including Sears and Bon-Ton Stores, are facing existential crises, where a bad quarter could lead to their liquidation (or, minimally, additional massive store closings). In these situations we should expect promotional intensity to remain high.

But for now everyone just take a deep breath. Mentally place the stories about Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the “interesting, but not very illuminating” section of your brain and strap in. This next week will likely be the calm before the storm and then things will really start to ramp up. And, for sure, far more will be revealed in the weeks ahead then we learned this past long weekend.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Hype-y holidays: ‘Black Friday’ and other nonsense

Brace yourself. The media hype around Black Friday and Cyber Monday is now at a fevered pitch. Don’t fall prey to the nonsense.

But you can rest assured that as we emerge from a tryptophan-induced haze Friday morning and turn on just about any news outlet you will witness some hapless reporter standing in a mall–or outside a (insert well-known national retailer name here)–opining about whether various “indicators” (number of people in line at store opening, whether shoppers are carrying full shopping bags and so on) bode well for retailers’ fortunes. Alas, Black Friday has always been far more media trap than sign o’ the times. There are several reasons for this.

Black Friday is not the biggest shopping day of the year.

The Saturday before Christmas and the day after are often the highest volume. In fact, if recent history is any indication, several days right before Christmas will likely rival Black Friday’s sales numbers. So while it’s an important day, it’s hardly a huge contributor to overall holiday season sales.

Black Friday revenues are on the decline.

As online shopping continues to grow, the relative share of total holiday sales done in stores on Black Friday is decreasing markedly. A recent survey suggests another down year. With some stores opening on Thanksgiving Day–and more and more Black Friday deals breaking early–revenues are being spread out over more days, rather than concentrated on the traditional “holiday” of massive consumption. Our friends at Amazon even launched their deals 50 days early this year.

For consumers, it’s mostly a con.

Study after study shows that, with few exceptions (mostly the heavily promoted, limited quantity “doorbusters”), the deals just aren’t that good. In fact, prices tend to be better in December or during traditional clearance periods.

The customer experience is terrible.

With overflowing parking lots, teeming throngs, long checkout lines and, in some cases, a need to camp out hours before the doors open to have a chance of scoring an actual great deal, shopping on Black Friday is the ultimate soul-crushing hassle. Apparently, some people thrive on this sort of thing. I hope they get the help they need. Oh, and many of the deals are recycled anyway.

Black Friday success (or failure) is meaningless.

With all the attention Black Friday gets you might think that a given retailer’s performance would be highly correlated with how its overall season will turn out. You’d be wrong. Over the years, many folks have tried to determine this correlation and haven’t found it. One study even found a somewhat negative relationship. So move along. Nothing to see here.

What about profits? 

While we’ll have to wait to see how Black Friday and Cyber Monday turn out, we can be fairly certain that it won’t be particularly profitable. This year’s retail industry exercise in group-think will have the predictable effect of compressing product margins and driving up operating costs all in the name of defending market share.

Of course with many retailers running scared or even fearful of their continued existence, few have the discipline to approach the season with any kind of restraint, promotional or otherwise.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.