The Evolution of Black Friday Behavior and Marketing

Black Friday. Long lines. Fast movement. Legendary camp setups outside big-name stores, everyone waiting for the clock to strike midnight. Shoppers hustling and bustling out in person the day after Thanksgiving. Bags of holiday treasures all around.

These used to be iconic scenes, as much a part of winter in America as the holidays themselves. But in recent years consumer behavior has shifted — demanding that marketers change their approach, too.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways Black Friday has evolved and what that means for brands!

Big sales used to be short lived — now they’re more frequent

“One day only” used to describe a slew of Black Friday deals. In more recent years, though, stores have spread their sales out over the months of November and December as opposed to concentrating them on a single day or weekend.

For example, large retailers like Walmart and Target have been offering multiple online and in-store “Black Friday” events throughout the season. The end of the year still dominates the retail landscape overall, with 30% of all sales occurring between Black Friday and Christmas.

There are still short-lived promotions (how else do brands create the urgency and exclusivity required for spur-of-the-moment purchase decisions?) but deals throughout the season are generally well-matched, as opposed to the days where wildly discounted prices were only available on Black Friday itself.

Promotions used to start on Friday — now they’re spread through the season

Black Friday sales used to (as their name suggests) primarily happen only on the day after Thanksgiving. Over time, some stores began to open their doors earlier and earlier. Instead of 8 am on Friday morning it became midnight, and then instead of midnight it became 9 pm the day before, and so on.

The decision to start shopping on Thanksgiving drew criticism from many who felt the sales infringed on holiday enjoyment and family time — until COVID-19 affected every part of our lives.

In 2020, most retailers opted to remain closed on Turkey Day for the first time in over a decade. This caused a 55% drop in foot traffic on Thanksgiving day compared to the previous year! Over half of all shoppers took advantage of early deals, starting their shopping in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving instead of waiting for the holiday to pass.

Many customers are leaving in-person shopping behind

Online shopping has been growing for years, long before words like “safer at home” were in our vocabularies. Right now it’s estimated that around 70% of all Americans have made at least one purchase online — and in just two years, that figure is projected to hit 90%.

During Black Friday weekend in 2019, more people shopped online than in stores. When the COVID-19 pandemic all but cancelled many holiday traditions in 2020, online shopping had a record-breaking year with more than 100 million shoppers making purchases through their computers, phones, or tablets.

While many people feel safer going out and about this year, the ecommerce movement shows no signs of slowing down. The line between Black Friday and Cyber Monday grows increasingly thin as online shopping becomes more commonplace and exact dates of sales matter less and less.

Overall purchases continue to rise

Despite changes to the Black Friday landscape, one thing has remained true for more than a decade: Overall sales continue to rise.

Last year’s Thanksgiving weekend brought more than $14 billion in online sales, a 19% increase over 2019. The average shopper spent around $300 on their purchases, slightly less than in 2019 (likely due to the pandemic) but aligned with 2018’s numbers.

In fact, revenue has consistently increased by 17-20% over the past few years, unaffected by COVID. The method of holiday shopping has changed — but the desire to score the perfect gifts (and maybe a personal treat or two) hasn’t faded.

Change is in the holiday air

Black Friday will continue to evolve. We’ve already seen it go from a single-day event to a broader season of consumerism — and the waters continue to muddy as online shopping becomes increasingly easy. (With one-click pay options that mean we don’t even have to pull our credit cards out of our wallets, who can resist?)

It’s more important than ever that smaller businesses spend time on their ecommerce strategy or devise exclusive specials to actually get shoppers in store. Above all else, brands need to stay nimble — in our world of technology, it only takes a year or two for trends to make big shifts.

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