Black Friday and Bad Weather: Shoppers May Be Delayed, but Not Denied

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Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the past few weeks, retailers have been blamed for ruining Thanksgiving by opening their doors to shoppers on what is traditionally a quiet family holiday. But now it looks like another force, dubbed Boreas, could ruin Turkey Day for many Americans.

Boreas is the name of the winter storm that has been blamed for at least 14 deaths, as well as 650 flight cancellations this week in the Dallas–Fort Worth area alone. As the storm system pushes eastward, severe weather — including heavy rain and wind and more than a foot of snow in some parts of the Northeast — is in the forecast for the days around Thanksgiving, which are always expected to be big days for travel and shopping alike.

Traffic on the roads, which is brutal on the East Coast around Thanksgiving, will surely be worse than usual in the days ahead. And what about traffic at the mall during this key time of year for retailers?

By some accounts, mall crowds were already expected to be subdued (relatively speaking) on the day after Thanksgiving. A new Nielsen poll reported that only 13% of shoppers will visit brick-and-mortar stores to shop this Black Friday, down from 17% who planned to do so on Black Friday in 2012. The fall is “part of a four-year downward trend, where consumers report a declining interest in Black Friday shopping,” Nielsen researchers explain.

(MORE: The Big Lie About Shopping on Thanksgiving and Black Friday)

Added into the mix are the many ways that shoppers can find deals on par with Black Friday on days other than Black Friday. There have been holiday promotions starting in September, and door busters and Black Friday price-matching services offered by retailers starting the week before Black Friday, if not even earlier. Of course, there’s also the rise of retailers launching Black Friday deals in physical stores open on Thanksgiving Day, and a huge host of online sales and promotions before, during and after the Thanksgiving–Black Friday–Cyber Monday.

In other words, even without the possibility of bad weather making shoppers think twice before driving to the mall, it’s easier than ever to justify staying home rather than hitting brick-and-mortar stores on Black Friday.

Retailers understandably worry that if severe winter storms cause havoc in any major cities in the days ahead, stores’ sales totals could also be dreary as consumers in affected cities might suddenly realize they have no actual need to physically go shopping on any one specific day. This is enough to make retailers panic, seeing as we’re in arguably the most competitive holiday season ever and, according to data cited by, consumers who planned on shopping this weekend anticipated that they’d blow roughly half their holiday shopping budget by the time Cyber Monday rolls around.

Overall, if bad weather does have an impact on Thanksgiving-week shopping, it’ll be in two main ways:

More Online Shopping. Regardless of weather, the anticipation is that e-commerce will have a terrific Thanksgiving week — and booming sales for the entire holiday season, for that matter. Forrester Research estimated that online sales for the U.S. 2013 holidays will grow 15% compared with last year. According to a consumer survey from Accenture, a higher percentage of Black Friday shoppers said they planned to do most of their shopping online (30%) vs. in-store (28%). In the Nielsen survey, 46% of American consumers said they would shop online on Cyber Monday, vs. 30% a year ago.

(MORE: Everything You Need to Know About Black Friday)

It’s easy to see how inclement weather could push online sales even higher, as shoppers who are stuck at home resort to browsing for holiday gifts on the Web. “Many merchants don’t care where the sale takes place,” says Brian Hoyt, vice president of communications for the deal-aggregation site RetailMeNot. With that in mind, retailers will be announcing special new offers online throughout the week, sometimes with new promotions every hour. “You will absolutely see tons of online deals on Thanksgiving and Black Friday.”

More Intensely Crowded Malls. When bad weather prevents a shopper from hitting the mall, the other alternative to shopping online is simply waiting out the storm. “It may be a day or two later than originally planned, but if a shopper feels the urgency to buy a gift in a store, it’ll happen,” says Hoyt.

If the weather is horrible on Thanksgiving — and that’s the forecast for much of the Northeast — that may dissuade shoppers from deserting their families for the mall after the turkey dinner. But if the shopping crowds are small on a dreary Thanksgiving night or even early on the morning of Black Friday, that could mean business will be especially brisk once the weather is clear on Friday afternoon or Saturday.

“After being cooped up in the house for a couple of days, shoppers might want to escape to the mall and brave the crowds,” says Collin Brinkman, a director in Deloitte’s retail-and-distribution practice. Brinkman says that in previous years, cold weather and bad storms may have hurt sales at brick-and-mortar stores for brief spells, but there’s no evidence that Mother Nature curtailed shopping in any sustained way. “Shopping is a very social activity,” he says, explaining why not all consumers will automatically turn to the Web to make their purchases. “Over a period of five days or so, people who really want to go shopping will figure out a time to get out and do so.”