Black Friday means different things for different people. For some, it’s a holiday tradition: getting up early to shake off that post-Thanksgiving food coma and score ludicrously priced toaster ovens and television sets. For others, it’s a day to order a few gifts online before getting back to the family. And then there are those who, warded off by news footage of bargain-mad consumers stampeding through checkout lanes, decide to skip the retail world altogether.
But is the entire exercise — based on the promise of cheap prices for holiday shopping — even worth it? For some experts, the answer is, well, not really — at least if it means crashing a strip mall at the crack of dawn, fueled by cold leftovers and an unquenchable thirst for bargains.
“I’ve been trying to call Black Friday ‘Blah Friday,’” says Dr. Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and former professor at Golden Gate University. “It’s losing a lot of its emotional intensity.”
That’s in part because Black Friday sales are becoming more diffuse over the weeks before and after Thanksgiving.
“It used to be basically one day and maybe a weekend, and now it’s just really become the entire month of November,” says Rebecca Lehmann, a senior manager at Brad’s Deals, which tracks online and in-store sales. According to Lehmann, the majority of Thanksgiving season sales were largely contained to the weeks of Black Friday and Cyber Monday as recently as last year. But this year they’re beginning to spread even further, with some discounts appearing as early as the beginning of November.
Those longer windows of shopping opportunities mean that consumers have less of a reason to fight the crowds on Black Friday, as they can now more often score equally or almost equally good deals on other days.
Even so, the most dedicated bargain hunters may still find reasons to shop on Black Friday. “The best deals are still going to be on Black Friday itself,” says Lehmann. “We’ll see general sales running the entire week, but those stores will still hold back their door busters until Thursday and Friday.”
But, while those special deals can definitely be a steal, the very best offers are often of limited supply and are in-store-only promotions. That mean that most big-ticket items will likely go to shoppers willing to camp out all night in the cold for their discounts. And experts say Americans tend to be less willing to put themselves through that ordeal than they used to be. That’s especially true given the rise of easy and speedy online ordering, which has weened people off the in-person retail experience entirely.
“Suddenly consumers are valuing convenience almost as much as price,” says Yarrow. “They’re really hungry for easier, more convenient ways to get the job done.”
Retailers are starting to catch on, putting their Black Friday deals online and allowing consumers to order on the web and pick up their items in stores.
“Having a frictionless experience, I think, is critical,” says Dr. Dee Warmath, a professor of financial planning, housing and consumer economics at the University of Georgia. “Doing things that respect the value of the consumer’s time is something that’s only getting more important.”
That’s a big change in how Black Friday happens — and it reflects the broader shifts in the retail landscape. As Warmath explains, Black Friday began in an era when retailers had more power and consumers had fewer options. Black Friday shoppers dedicated an entire day of their lives to deal-hunting, and once they were in a store, they were often likely to buy more stuff. But with the rise of easy Internet shopping, customers can quickly search through multiple options, find the best deal in a matter of minutes, and get back to their lives.
“Now we’re in an age of consumer power,” Warmath explains. “We’re going to have to rethink what Black Friday means and whether Black Friday is relevant anymore.”
Of course, there’s always Cyber Monday.