So Was Thanksgiving Night Shopping Worth It?

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By opening as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, stores drew plenty of protests and petitions from legions of consumers, who pleaded with retailers like Walmart and Target to keep the holiday from becoming just another day to shop. For the most part, retailers didn’t listen—and neither did shoppers.

Take, for example, the insights of one consumer quoted in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, who had this to say of Thanksgiving night shopping:

“I hate it,” said Michelle Huff, of the Beaufort area, waiting in line outside a Toys R Us in Sunset Hills that opened about 15 minutes ahead of its planned 8 p.m. opening to let shoppers escape the falling rain. “It cuts into family time.”

Huff said she prefers the midnight and 5 a.m. openings so she can go out when her children are asleep. But she came out nonetheless for the 8 p.m. opening. “It’s something I like to do,” she said. “It’s a tradition.”

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Let’s ponder this: She hates how Thanksgiving hours ruin the holiday for families—but not to the extent that she’ll actually stay home with her family. Instead, she comes out whenever it is that the stores decide to open, ready to spend on “door buster” deals and perhaps a few other unplanned purchases that come across her line of sight. Stores will take this kind of “hate” any day of the week (including, obviously, Thanksgiving Thursday). For retailers, what matters isn’t what shoppers say or how they feel, but what they actually do and, most importantly, what they buy.

In the case of multi-day shopping spree that is Black Friday weekend, shoppers turned out in full force and bought quite a bit. National Retail Federation data indicates that 247 million Americans went shopping online and/or in physical stores over Black Friday weekend, up from 226 million last year. On Thanksgiving itself, upwards of 35 million consumers hit the stores or visited retailer websites to make purchases, up from 29 million on Thanksgiving 2011. The average shopper spent more too over Black Friday weekend of this year: $423, compared to $398 in 2011.

Even so, there are arguments to be made that expanding Black Friday into Thanksgiving may not be entirely in retailers’ best interests, and not only because the added hours ruin family time. Thanksgiving night hours steal some of the thunder (and sales) away from Black Friday. For the entire weekend stores also seem to increasingly be serving as mere showrooms, where shoppers can inspect the goods in person so that they can later purchase them with confidence, and at a much cheaper price. According to ShopperTrak research, foot traffic in stores was up 3.5% on Black Friday, and yet in-store sales were down 1.8%, giving credence to the theory that many shoppers were there just for the purposes of browsing and “showrooming.”

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By putting time, effort, and money into adding Thanksgiving hours and exhibiting hot gift items in elaborate, interactive holiday displays, stores may, in fact, be helping to boost sales for the competition online.

For now at least, things look good for retailers. As the Associated Press put it, the holiday shopping season is off to a record start, thanks to early season promotions (expanded layaway, toy reservation programs, and more) and strong sales over Black Friday weekend. The question, though, is whether the momentum will continue.

In the same way that Black Friday sales have been hurt by sales on Thanksgiving night, the latter part of the holiday season may suffer from a sales slump directly because sales have been so robust in November. By the second or third week of December—normally when holiday shopping reaches its heights—consumers may have their lists completed, or simply be out of money to spend.

Retail executives quoted in a Wall Street Journal story said that opening on Thanksgiving night was absolutely a smart move:

“Our guests stayed longer and shopped more of the store, so the initial reaction is that it was the right thing,” said Sid Keswani, senior vice president of Target’s Southwest region.

Wal-Mart said that shoppers who came for “door-buster” deals on electronics and toys stayed to snap up housewares.

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Yet the thrust of this WSJ story is that a strong start to holiday sales does not necessarily indicate a strong overall season for retailers. Some wonder whether the focus on early sales, and on Black Friday weekend in particular, will sabotage retail sales for the season as a whole:

“I fear we are conditioning the customer to shop only on this one weekend,” said John Abt, co-owner of Abt Electronics, a large independent electronics retailer based in Glenview, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

From the consumer point of view, slumping sales toward the middle and the end of December could mean a bonanza of deals. If retailers anticipate the possibility of being stuck with too much inventory as December 25 approaches, the discounts will be dramatic, perhaps even blowing away the best prices seen on Black Friday. By that point, however, the family holiday gift budget may have already been maxed out.