5 Signs This Holiday Season Is the Most Competitive, Desperate Ever

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When a store opens at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning to kick off a 41-hour shopping marathon, it sniffs of desperation. That’s just one indication retailers are now engrossed in a desperately competitive holiday period.

As the always-hectic winter holiday shopping period nears, the consensus has it that consumers aren’t remotely in the mood to open their piggy banks on epic shopping binges. The National Retail Federation anticipates that the average consumer’s holiday spending will decrease 2% this year, due partly to ongoing concerns about the economy and employment, and perhaps worries still lingering in the aftermath of the federal shutdown. The results of a new survey from the financial services firm Edward Jones have it that 37% of American consumers plan on spending less on the holidays this year than they did in 2012, compared to 18% who say they’ll probably spend more during the 2013 holiday shopping season.

The calendar also gives retailers reason to feel extra pressure this year. Normally, there are about 30 (shopping) days between Black Friday and Christmas, but Thanksgiving falls late in November in 2013, and the result is that there are only 25 days between Black Friday and Christmas. The period leading up to Christmas is always extremely competitive, what with retailers extending shopping hours and matching prices to keep up with the pack. But this year is looking like the most competitive ever. Here are a few indications:

Holiday promotions launched before summer ended. Just a few days after Labor Day—105 days before Christmas, as AdAge noted—consumers were subjected to the first winter holiday TV commercial, a Kmart ad hyping its layaway service. Before September ended, and before most people had even begun buying candy and picking out costumes for Halloween, several retailers had jumped into the fray with deals and promotions seeking holiday shopping dollars extra early in the season.

(MORE: Black Friday Is Facing Extinction)

In fact, this year it has become exceedingly commonplace for marketers to push winter holiday campaigns before consumers have had the chance to enjoy Halloween or Thanksgiving. According to an Experian Marketing Services survey, 49% of marketers had plans to launch campaigns before October 31.

Black Friday-like sales have already arrived. The importance of Black Friday has been fading as consumers have been pulled in so many different directions, all leading away from the mall on the day after Thanksgiving. What with ever-expanding online shopping options, plus the possibility of shopping on Thanksgiving itself (see below), and more and more holiday deals and promotions popping up days and even weeks before Black Friday, there’s less reason for shoppers to elbow through the crowds on this one specific day.

Last week, Walmart’s website offered Black Friday-type deals such as a Xelio tablet for $49 and a 42-inch LED JVC TV for $299. Starting with the first weekend in November, Toys R Us began a special promotion to draw shoppers in, giving an extra 10% off to customers making purchases with a Toys R Us credit card, any Saturday through December 21. Amazon, meanwhile, kicked off a “Countdown to Black Friday Deals Week, and a constantly changing roster of steeply discounted items (most 50% or more off the list price) will appear daily for weeks to come.

Brick-and-mortar stores embrace showrooming. As shoppers have grown more comfortable with e-commerce, traditional retailers have had good reason to fear their fate as mere “showrooms,” used by shoppers to inspect items they’ll ultimately buy online. Perhaps because they have no choice, brick-and-mortar retailers have lately shown a willingness to acknowledge and even embrace customer showrooming practices into their shopping experiences.

(MORE: Hey Thanksgiving Shoppers, Macy’s Isn’t the Only One to Blame for Ruining the Holiday)

The most obvious example of this is Best Buy’s new TV ad campaign declaring itself the “Ultimate Holiday Showroom.” The ads encourage the idea of heading to the Best Buy showroom to play with gadgets and other goods, but since Best Buy matches prices with most of the competition (even Amazon), and because of the utility (according to the ads) of Best Buy’s online and mobile shopping options, the hope is that in one way or another, shoppers will wind up closing the deal with Best Buy, of course.

Shopping marathons start on Thanksgiving. The average consumer is annoyed, if not outright hostile, to holiday displays and promotions arriving earlier and earlier each year. “Saturating public space with earlier and earlier holiday fare is upsetting, because it violates and devalues the psychological role holidays play in our lives,” one psychology professor explained to a CBS station in Connecticut.

Nonetheless, the “Christmas creep” trend is real (see above), and the once-unthinkable practice of stores opening on Thanksgiving is become standard. Macy’s and J.C. Penney announced they’d be open on Thanksgiving night for the first time in recent memory, joining retailers like Walmart, Toys R Us, and Target, which will open to the crowds at 8 p.m., if not even earlier. (UPDATE: Toys R Us just announced it will open at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.) A mall in Florida is pushing the envelope even further with a Thanksgiving Day opening time of 6 p.m., kicking off “29 hours of continuous Black Friday specials and promotions,” ending mercifully when stores close at 11 p.m. on Black Friday.

Perhaps fittingly, Kmart, which offered the season’s earliest holiday TV commercial, just announced it will open its doors at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving as the beginning of an astonishingly long shopping marathon: Stores won’t close until 11 p.m. on Black Friday, 41 hours later.

Even Amazon seems to be feeling the pressure. In the past, Amazon.com has been able to win the battle for sales by undercutting the (primarily brick-and-mortar) competition on price. The spread of retailer price matching, and the rise of a new trend dubbed “webrooming”— like showrooming in reverse, when someone researches an item online, then purchases in a physical store—has the world’s largest e-retailer looking for other ways to win over consumers.

(MORE: Amazon Wants You to Actually Leave Your House Instead of Binge-Watching Its Shows)

Clearly, one of Amazon’s prime strategies for continued strong sales is, well, Amazon Prime. The service, which costs $79 annually and comes with free two-day shipping on most Amazon purchases, has proved to be enormously popular, and enormously successful for Amazon, mainly because it gets subscribers into the habit of shopping almost exclusively via Amazon.com.

Leading into the 2013 holiday shopping season, Amazon is picking up the Prime push. It recently increased the purchase threshold for free shipping from $25 to $35, thereby making the Prime membership fee seem like more of a worthwhile investment. And as the Seattle Times reported, a new Amazon offer entitles Prime members to one free digital copy of a book from Amazon Publishing via a new subscription service called Kindle First. Such e-books are probably best enjoyed via an Amazon Kindle tablet—which, wouldn’t you know it, are also quite handy for shopping at Amazon.com.

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