What Black Friday says about us

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My November 25 eyewitness Black Friday post suggested that the most famous shopping day of the year is bigger than ever. The official numbers confirm my hunch. According to ShopperTrak, Black Friday 2011 set a new retail sales record. Consumers spent $11.4 billion — the largest Black Friday haul ever and a 6.6 percent increase over 2010 spending levels. So what does Black Friday 2011 say about us? We’re getting increasingly sophisticated with our shopping experience, and we’re bonding socially over Black Friday. Unfortunately, we’re acting ugly, too, with Black Friday shoppers resorting to violence to secure their discounted door buster deals. The Walmarts of the world need to shoulder part of the blame for Black Friday shopper mayhem — and can help put an end to the behavior, too.

Here are four observations about Black Friday based on my four years of reporting:

1. Shopping is part of the American DNA

Black Friday continues to confound many people who don’t understand why Americans are so eager to stand in freezing cold lines and tolerate unpleasant shopping conditions in search of a bargain. As a colleague of mine asked on my Facebook wall, “Remember when a nice tradition was playing catch in the yard or sitting around the fireplace and telling stories? Now it’s shopping. I know I work in advertising and all, but I just don’t get it.”

And yet, shopping is as a traditional part of the American experience as playing catch in the yard, as Charlie Brown lamented in A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965. It’s no accident that Miracle on 34th Street, dating way back to 1947, occurs in a Macy’s department store. Take your pick: the cultural allusions to the holiday shopping tradition are easy to find. As Steve Furman commented on my November 25 blog post, “Commerce and capitalism are deeply engrained in our culture and Black Friday is simply an organic confluence of those three concepts.”

Pundits like Paco Underhill have analyzed shopping behavior in far more detail than I ever will. But as a short-handed explanation, I think Steve’s cogent analysis works for me. Shopping is merely an expression of America’s deep-seated culture of capitalism. You don’t have to like this reality, but I believe it’s time to accept it.

2. We misbehave in crowds

As seems to be the case every year, Black Friday turned ugly, with Walmart acting as ground zero for misbehaving consumers. At a Mesquite, Texas, Walmart, a surging mob nearly crushed a woman to death and destroyed a retail display. At another Walmart, shoppers tussled over $2 waffle makers, and at a Walmart near Los Angeles, a woman injured 20 people with pepper spray in a violent bid to secure a coveted discounted Xbox game player.

It’s pretty easy to see how these incidents happen, and I think Walmart needs to take accountability:

  • Walmart encourages dangles the promise of saving big with outrageously discounted products.
  • Then Walmart rewards aggressive shoppers by making the discounts available for a limited time only and opens its doors at midnight.
  • A huge crowd queues up in front of an enclosed physical space. And even a store as large as Walmart is a confined space.
  • Clearly, the stores are understaffed and improperly policed (as I’ve experience myself) — a crucial factor that contributes to the mayhem.

Doors open. Surging crowds compete for a finite supply of goods. Should we be surprised that people become violent? As I’ve argued before, retailers can help prevent this kind of behavior by treating shoppers with respect. On the other hand, treat people with disrespect, and they’ll respond accordingly.

3. We are mobile

As reported by TechCrunch, consumers took to their mobile devices for Black Friday shopping, with mobile increasing its share of traffic and sales. And ReadWriteWeb reports that Black Friday mobile payments were up by 516 percent from 2010. TechCrunch observed:

On Black Friday, mobile usage centered around finding store locations, browsing reviews, and accessing previously saved wish lists while people walked aisles at their local merchants. These insights can help retailers plan for next year. They should look to send out email marketing and deal notices early on Thanksgiving, as that’s when people make decisions of where to shop. This could work better than distributing promotions right at the start of Black Friday when customers may have already set a shopping agenda.

In fact, I started seeing Black Friday offers in my email in-box as early as November 13, and most of the time I viewed the content on my Apple iPhone. I expect to see teaser offers even sooner. And with tablets and smart phone devices continuing to weave their way into our everyday lives, I believe those offers will become more slick and full of rich content akin to Best Buy making its Black Friday circular available via an interactive interface.

One idea retailers might consider: more guided in-store selling. It should be obvious to any retailer when consumers are using their mobile devices to compare in-store inventory to deals available on Amazon.com. A friendly “May I help you find a great deal? What kinds of prices are you finding online?” from a salesperson might turn that clinical exercise in comparison shopping an opportunity to generate an in-store sale.

4. We are social

Black Friday is a social experience. Yes, people brave long lines and shopper mayhem to get deals. But if you’ve stood line with shoppers and talked with them year after year as I have, you notice something unmistakable: Black Friday is a social ritual just like going to the movies together. Early Friday morning, I chatted with some young shoppers who were combining their Best Buy visit with an all-night marathon that included stops to Walmart, Target, and Stake ‘n Shake — which is very typical of the Black Friday experience.

And yet, retailers continue to miss opportunities to capitalize on Black Friday social bonding. The big box stores like Walmart focus on the sale — not on the consumer. This year, Best Buy took a step in the right direction by offering outdoor screenings of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 for consumers standing in line at select stores. But retailers could do so much more to cater to people standing around together by becoming part of their social bonding. The use of social media by stores such as Sears is also encouraging — but what about creating experiences for people as they wait in line and enter the store to shop?

The future of Black Friday suggests not a day of shopping but a month-long experience. Increasingly, mobile and online social media will define that experience. Given the increasingly harsh PR Walmart is suffering in light of the ugly Black Friday behavior breaking out at its stores, I would not be surprised if the mammoth retailer goes on the offensive to enact some changes next year — probably in the form of better security. Given its enormous influence, Walmart could perform a public service by shifting the focus of Black Friday away from the sale and toward the consumer. I doubt such a change will occur. But hope springs eternal.

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