Are Black Friday Deals a Farce?

November 23, 2010

‘Twas the night before Black Friday
When all through the mall
The stores were all open, traditionalists appalled
The discounts were dangled on weekends before
So come Friday, would anyone be at the stores?

Visions of Black Friday’s sugarplum deals have danced in shoppers’ heads every holiday season for years now. For hard-core bargain hunters, heading out to shop in the most painfully wee hours of the morning ranks right up there with pumpkin pie and football as far as Thanksgiving traditions go. But, much like back-to-school sales are rolled out in June and stores put up Christmas displays well before Halloween, Black Friday creep (and the associated Black Friday backlash) sets in seemingly earlier every year.

Sears began running “Black Friday Now” promotions in October. Amazon started promoting special deals in electronics on Sunday, Nov. 21. Target also chose the Sunday prior to Turkey Day to run a special four-day sale. And retailers like Toys “R” Us and Old Navy  really upped the ante by announcing that they’ll give shoppers an early start on Black Friday – by being open on Thanksgiving Day.

Then you have Banana Republic reportedly holding a “Not Black Friday” sale the Friday after Black Friday – which manages to stroke consumers’ egos by suggesting that they are above fighting the Black Friday crowds, while at the same time generating a doorbuster sense of urgency (this sentiment is echoed by the “flash” sales, lasting only a few hours each, that the Gap brands have been mercilessly hawking to e-mail subscribers if my inbox is any indication.)

Have we reached a consumer vs. retailer Black Friday game theory impasse? Retail analyst Sherif Mityas told the New York Times that “consumers have been trained to buy merchandise only ‘on sale.’”  People are smarter shoppers – researching prices online, timing purchases for blowout sales, and whipping out smartphones to scan barcodes for comparison shopping.  Retailers are responding by offering big-deal sales more frequently, trying to establish in customers’ minds that they are they place to go to get the best deals.

As Target’s EVP of Merchandising said in the NYT piece, “We want them to come to us first, middle, last.”

Are retailers playing psychological games to whip up Black Friday frenzy? Consumer Reports says that shoppers often fall for holiday shopping traps, including doorbuster deals that are discounts and yet still higher than manufacturers’ suggested retail prices, extended warranties, and gift cards that come with service fees. Consulting firm Accenture says that consumers have tired of the game and that Black Friday apathy has set in among consumers, noting that fewer shoppers say they plan to hit the sales this year than last. And in the ultimate case of Black Friday backlash, one Massachusetts town has cracked down – Dartmouth has banned retail stores from being open from midnight to 4 a.m. on Black Friday, ensuring that at least somewhere in America, the frenzy can wait a few hours. Unless of course, the shopping is already done.

Now if you and yours have been saving your pennies to cash in on Black Friday deals, do not fret. I’m not here to dash anyone’s post-Thanksgiving dreams of retail grandeur. See this as the your friendly “buyer beware” reminder.  Last year, techie website Gizmodo ran a feature on “Black Friday Anti-Deals: What Not to Buy” alerting shoppers to Black Friday electronics prices that were actually kinda for suckers. Do your homework, don’t be afraid to ask staff if there will be further reductions in prices (they’ll tell you), and if you’re tempted this year to simply hit the snooze button, chances are you’ll be OK.

Photo courtesy of Lululemon Athletica.

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