Has Black Friday Regained Its Mojo?

For all the hype, Black Friday doesn’t resonate with everyone.

Last year, 55 percent of Americans avoided the retail rush on the day and the weekend after Thanksgiving, according to the first 2015 Consumer Reports holiday poll.

But 44 percent did, in fact, participate in the buying Bacchanalia. By contrast, only 30 percent shopped the same period two years earlier.

This year, even more people will likely hit the stores: 47 percent of Americans polled told us they plan to go shopping on Black Friday.

Does that mean consumers are back to their free-spending ways in the post-recession world? Probably not.

For some, Black Friday represents an opportunity to score unbeatable bargains; for others, it’s as much a part of the season as watching, “It’s A Wonderful Life” for the hundredth time. Among those who plan to shop on Black Friday weekend, 83 percent say it’s because of the deals. Thirty-four percent say Black Friday shopping is a tradition and that shopping during this period is “energizing and exciting.” Others rush to the stores to buy items before they’re out of stock. (Our percentages exceed 100 because respondents could select multiple reasons.)

While the lure of doorbuster savings is a big part of the Black Friday appeal, retailers don’t always deliver. Forty-four percent of those who shopped during last year’s Black Friday weekend were disappointed with the quality of last year’s deals; 13 percent characterized their overall 2014 Black Friday shopping experience as negative.

How do Americans really feel about Black Friday? Ten percent love it, according to our survey; 17 percent like it; and 22 percent merely tolerate it. However half avoid it, characterizing it as mostly “hype and a hassle.”

Christmas Creep

Black Friday has had its ups and down as a seminal sales period. There are various explanations. It started with the ever-expanding holiday shopping season, sometimes referred to as “Christmas creep.”  For several years, retailers have been providing holiday discounts in stores and online much earlier in the cycle (remember Amazon’s Christmas in July sale?), so consumers need not wait until Black Friday for ballyhooed bargains.

The steady surge in online shopping, with its nonstop barrage of deals and discounts, has further eroded the Black Friday mystique. Credit more generous price-matching policies, too. Major chains like Target now not only pledge to meet or beat the price of other brick-and-mortar competitors, but those of online merchants as well.

Retail consultant Jack Abelson advises shoppers to not only think about price, but quality, which can be lacking during the highly competitive holiday season as merchants try to undercut one another.

“The outside of the television may look the same." says Abelson, "But the components are not as good."

He says you'll also find retailers selling garments made of fabric with lesser quality. Retailers do this because they are fixated on price, as opposed to value, he says.

In-Store vs. Online Shopping

Americans are split on how they'll shop this year on Black Friday weekend. In our poll, 37 percent said they expect to hit the malls, while 34 percent plan to shop online. Some online retailers will also offer free shipping, making online an especially attractive alternative to dealing with crowds, traffic, and long lines at the stores.

While millions of people will likely experience a shoppers’ high on Black Friday, there’s a growing backlash against the recent trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving Day. Dozens of chains including Costco, TJ Maxx, Publix, Bed Bath & Beyond, Costco, and Crate & Barrel will be closed.

The 143-store outdoor-gear chain REI made a splash with its plans to not open on Black Friday. CEO Jerry Stritzke said in a statement, “Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the essential truth that life is richer, more connected and complete when you choose to spend it outside. We’re closing our doors, paying our employees to get out there, and inviting America to OptOutside with us because we love great gear, but we are even more passionate about the experiences it unlocks.”

Although the chain’s sales will likely take a hit, Abelson suspects those losses will be easily offset by the windfall of free advertising the OptOutside campaign has generated.

Timely Tips for Black Friday Warriors

If you do plan to shop on Black Friday, here’s some guiding advice:

  • Do your homework. Websites such as www.bfads.net, www.fatwallet.com, and www.gottadeal.com reveal advance information about Black Friday circulars and other sales at many stores, and feature downloadable coupons. You can also find out which products come with rebates and which merchants offer free shipping.
  • Is it really a bargain? If you find a product in a flyer at a seemingly low price, go online first to determine whether you can get it at Amazon or elsewhere for less. Take advantage of price-match policies whenever possible.
  • Are online and in-store prices the same? Sometimes, the better deal is available online even if you factor in shipping (often waived this time of year or eligible at a lower purchase threshold). Remember, too, that many big retailers will let you place an order online and pick the item up locally without a shipping charge.
  • Consider the risks and rewards of late-night and pre-dawn sales. It’s true, many retailers offer huge discounts, often selling a few attention-grabbing toys or electronic items at or below cost to lure you into the store, where you’ll hopefully purchase other more profitable merchandise. These “loss leaders” are typically offered in extremely limited quantities and it’s first-come, first-serve. Don’t bother to show up unless you’re willing to wait, sometimes for hours before the store opens, and even then there’s no guarantee. Such sales can be hazardous, too, as overzealous shoppers battle one another for the last Star Wars BladeBuilders Jedi Master Lightsaber.
  • Check return policies. Retailers are becoming stricter when it comes to enforcing return policies. Be sure to ask for gift receipts. If you lack a receipt, be prepared to be issued a gift card or store credit for the lowest price the item actually sold for, not necessarily what you paid for it.
  • Be mindful of restocking fees. Certain products at certain stores are subject to fees, typically of as much as 15 percent, if you open the package and decide to return it afterwards.

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