Black Friday: Forever changed by COVID-19 and digitization?

Black Friday—it’s the shopaholic’s favourite holiday and for many people, the kickoff to the Christmas season. The celebration of Black Friday as we may know began in the United States around 2005 as a way to get people into the stores on a day where most Americans are already off school and work for Thanksgiving Weekend.

“I think they felt that all of these people are off, let me make sure that they're able to buy something,” explained Anwar White, program director of the McGill Master of Management in Retailing (MMR).

While it started off in the United States, it really began to trickle into Canadian culture around the time of the recession in 2008, when the exchange rate was more favourable for Canadian buyers. It was tradition for those who lived on the Canada-US border to make a day trip to the US to take advantage of the sales, but also for Canadian retailers to take advantage of the hype around the retail holiday and introduce their own sales.

Over the last five years, however, and especially with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two, shopping has gone digital in a way that we hadn’t really seen before.

A lot of people have been more comfortable buying things online - not just the younger generations, but also their parents, and even their grandparents are starting to get more and more comfortable buying things online and that’s taken precedence,” said White.

It’s easy to avoid the drama and discomfort of waiting in line before dawn for the stores to open and cramming in next to hundreds of others clamoring for that doorbuster TV as well. Why bother when with a simple click your discounted electronics are delivered right to your doorstep, and in some cases, even the very next day?

We've seen retailers be flexible and nimble in how they actually provide product for their customers,” explained White.

Especially with the pandemic, retailers have adapted their strategy to meet customers where they are, offering options like appointment shopping and curbside pickup.

“During the pandemic, convenience—not crowd-avoidance--has been the number one factor in success for retailers.”

We’ve also started to see just how early Black Friday sales can start. While this had already been in motion prior to the pandemic, it really took off in 2020 with many sales starting as early as the first week of November. Part of this eagerness to get started early stems from backlash around Black Friday bleeding into Thanksgiving weekend and pressure to give employees Thanksgiving off to spend time with their families, White said.

“In the early 2010s there was greater focus on retail employees being able to spend time with their families during the holiday season, which has contributed to more retailers giving their employees the time off,” White added.

Even most recently, Target announced they would be giving their workers Thanksgiving off indefinitely.

The challenge, it seems, with these early Black Friday deals is the marketing behind it.

“People don’t know when the sales are actually starting,” said White. “In recent years this sales season has become more fluid, which has been a pleasant surprise for consumers as they approach Black Friday shopping. I think retailers need to have a stronger marketing push for the earlier holiday sales at the beginning of November or mid-October.”

White said having these earlier start times can be helpful for retailers in engaging with their customer-base and gauging which products are going to be in high demand in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

But does the lack of bodies in-store mean retailers are missing out on full-price sales? Perhaps not.

Given COVID-19, people are generally spending less time in store, in and out to get the five or six things on that shopping list and not necessarily perusing the inventory like they used to. This is true, but online sales are way up. In May 2020, Statistics Canada reported that online retail sales more than doubled year on year.

“Online is still a really huge component. The ability to be able to see the entire spectrum of the inventory is helpful as well as the convenience factor,” White said.

Another value-add for e-commerce in the eyes of the consumer is the myriad of buy now, pay later options that have burst onto the scene. You’ve got your Sezzles and your Afterpays and your PayBrights, all which allow you to split your purchase into four smaller payments with no interest or credit check, which means you get your items right away with a smaller upfront cost.

“Not everyone is thriving in this pandemic world. There are still a lot of people that are suffering from a financial standpoint,” explained White. “These payment terms and the buy now pay later programs are really helpful for many consumers.”

The ultimate question is, will this new hybrid version of Black Friday--and even shopping in general—stick around? All signs point to yes, according to White.

“I think what gets harder is, as we've seen in the last couple of years, trying to predict what will happen over the next couple of years,” he added. “But these things that we have now, I don't see them leaving anytime soon because it is making the shopping experience more convenient for the customer.”

As we have all seen, things have changed--what worked before in retail will not necessarily work today or in the future, which is why the McGill MMR program is designed to equip future leaders in retail with the skills to hit the ground running, adapt to the ever-evolving retail environment, and drive innovation in the industry.

MMR Program

Learn more about the McGill Master of Management in Retailing Program


The Future of Retail

The Future of Retail

The MMR program has been made possible thanks to generous donations from Aldo Bensadoun, and is offered in partnership with the Bensadoun School of Retail Management.

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