With the U.S. economy reeling, holiday shoppers have been the focus of heightened scrutiny. Will they turn out in droves in the wee hours on Black Friday and spend lavishly, or will they cave into recessionary fears and pinch their pennies? What are retailers doing to woo this exotic species of American shopper during a downturn? On Black Friday 2008, I decided to do some investigating of my own, which is why I found myself standing in line at a Downers Grove, Illinois, Kohl’s department store at 3:30 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving — the first of many early morning excursions that also included visits to Circuit City, Target, and Toys R Us.
I’ve endured Black Friday before. It’s not an experience to be taken lightly at least in Chicago, where getting a decent place in line to buy a door buster at Best Buy can mean camping out overnight in frigid weather. But I was downright curious to see if Black Friday would be a tamer affair this time. Would I find the shopping lines longer? What kinds of bargains were consumers seeking during an economic downturn — would they buy budget DVDs instead of DVD players?
Answer to the first question: definitely no at least based on my unscientific observations. By 3:45 a.m., the line to get into Kohl’s for a 4:00 a.m. opening was as long, if not longer, than it was last year. And at Toys R Us, it took me nearly an hour to stand in line at 6:30 a.m. to some goodies for my daughter, with nearly every person in front of me pushing carts filled high with toys and expensive electronics. (A family biding their time with me in line reported that a fight had erupted in Target for iPods on sale.)
Answer to the second question: bargains are not as important as you might think. Black Friday is really all about the social experience and shared tradition. As teenaged-shoppers Jamie, Alyssa, and Kelsey told me in line at Kohl’s, “We do Black Friday for the fun of staying up all night together.”
Jamie, Alyssa, and Kelsey’s sentiment was typical of what other Black Friday shoppers told me. At Kohl’s, I also interviewed shopping moms Laura, Ellen, and Katherine, all of whom were wearing sweat shirts that read, “Power Shopping Team.” I asked them point blank what was so important that they needed to sacrifice sleep for Black Friday?
“Power shopping is a tradition!” They all chimed in at once. Laura gushed about doing Black Friday for 14 years and enjoying the ritual of plotting their shopping visits over coffee, then driving from store to store and catching up on gossip and family news. And, boy, they had their morning planned more carefully than the Normandy Invasion. They seemed be adopting a contra-shopping strategy, buying lower-profile items like curtains at JCPenney and wash cloths at Kohl’s while the rest of the shopping mob focused on the more predictable door busters like cameras, clothing, and clicker caddies.
Clearly, Laura, Ellen, and Katherine reveled in each other’s company. They shared photos of their kids stored on their mobile phones. Ellen fielded a phone call from a friend in Missouri who reported on the action at a Wal-Mart. I found shoppers like them throughout Black Friday — mostly women gathered in twos, threes, and fours, joking about the bitter coffee they brought with them from 7-11, helping each other compare product features of digital cameras, and lending a mobile phone to a shopper who needed to call her husband lost somewhere in a nearby throng. They all told me the same thing: We just enjoy the experience. Together.
Inevitably, shoppers asked each other (often total strangers just marking time in line) how long they’d been awake that morning. I thought I was pulling off a minor miracle by waking up at 2:30 a.m. to prepare for the day, but a young couple in line with me at Toys R Us never went to sleep Thanksgiving night, starting their Black Friday at an Aurora outlet mall that opened its doors at 11:00 p.m. Thursday. They smiled victoriously as shoppers around them acknowledged their stamina with compliments.
As I watched dawn break with a middle-aged woman from Florida and her daughter near the check-out station at Toys R Us, I remembered a presentation I heard Forrester analyst James McQuivey deliver at the October 2008 Forrester Consumer Forum. In analyzing the wants and needs of consumers, McQuivey argued that being connected is a basic need worthy of Maslow. In fact, McQuivey argued that Maslow needs to be revised to account for the intrinsic human need to share and belong, a theme that also surfaced in Consumer Forum presentations by Paco Underhill and Forrester’s Lisa Bradner.
I think Forrester got it right. On Black Friday, the bargain hunting is really a means to an end. The real motivator? The shared shopping experience.
Next year I suggest that retailers tap into the social nature of Black Friday and remember the Lauras, Jamies, and Ellen who wield economic clout. Promoting sales is important, but how about offering coffee, treats, and entertainment to enrich the tradition and the fun that consumers obviously seek from the morning? Imagine Best Buy offering prizes to shoppers who travel the farthest or having customers submit their own favorite Black Friday experiences for possible door prizes.
Anyone else experience Black Friday? What was it like?