holiday buying behaviors

Passikoff: Your Holiday Shopping Run-Down

Black Friday and Christmas shopping are becoming more like going to see Santa or the Thanksgiving Day parade. Nice to do, but not necessary to do.

I have tickets for a Broadway show. I’ve had them since December 2018. 

Hey, this is New York City. Broadway we’re talking about here. If you want good seats, you buy them when they announce the show. Even when the show’s not opening for a year, which it was scheduled to do. They’re 6th row center tickets for the revival of the musical The Music Man. It’s a hot ticket. You can’t see it, but I’m doing my Snoopy dance right now! The pandemic forced theatres into the longest shutdown in Broadway history, so now the show is opening – February 2022. 

If you haven’t seen the show (or the movie version or made-for-TV-movie version), a brief precis: A con man, Harold Hill, poses as a boy’s band leader to sell instruments, uniforms, and music lessons to gullible Iowa townsfolk. It’s 1912 so, sorry, no Yelp reviews. So they don’t know he’s a con man who plans to skip town without teaching the boys to play. He falls in love with the town librarian, Marian, and is caught, not by his irate customers, but his heart! OK, I’m a softie, but it’s a great show.

The show opened at the Majestic Theatre, December 1957 starring Robert Preston as “Professor” Harold Hill and Barbara Cook as Marion the librarian. My folks took me to see it. It’s been revived two times. In 1980 at City Center with Dick Van Dyke in the title role, and again in 2000 at the Neil Simon Theater with Craig Bierko. I took my sons to see that one. The 2022 Winter Garden production stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. They’re both amazing performers, but for the record I would pay good money to hear Sutton Foster sing the phonebook. (If that metaphor eludes you, ask a Baby Boomer to explain it to you.)

Why tell you about the show? Because book, music, and lyrics were written by Meredith Wilson, who, six years earlier, wrote the song, “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” And that song came to me when brands started running their 2021 Christmas advertising. Three months before December 25th.

“Yikes,” I hear you cry, “We haven’t even celebrated Thanksgiving yet!” And you’d be completely correct. And if you think that earlier Christmas advertising is the result of the COVID crisis and supply chain issues, well, you’d only be partially correct. Brands have been conducting holiday advertising earlier and earlier and consumers have been doing holiday shopping earlier and earlier for a while now.

It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Traditionally the “holidays” were defined as the sixty-one days of November and December. But retailers, looking to hold online sales at bay and embracing the sales philosophy, “the first man gets the oyster, the second man gets the shell,” started holiday advertising earlier and earlier. 

Advertisers advertise holiday sales earlier, consumers shop earlier, so advertisers advertise even earlier to attract consumers before other retailers, and so on and so on. In 2019, 51% of consumers reported shopping before Black Friday, a shopping period we designated, “Black November.”  While Black Friday represents a retail raison d’être, it’s been getting kind of gray, becoming a relic of 20th century retailing. Marketers taught and consumers learned. Deals abound year-round, resulting in earlier consumer shopping with a smaller percentage of consumers actually shopping on Black Friday. 

OK, deals and COVID notwithstanding, Black Friday and December itself have taken on more a sense of a traditional, seasonal thing families can do together. You know, what consumers do when Jack Frost nips at your nose and Santa Claus is coming to town. Sure, consumers will shop on Black Friday and likely through to Christmas eve, but Black Friday and Christmas shopping are becoming more like going to see Santa or the Thanksgiving Day parade. Nice to do, but not necessary to do.

When it came to times consumers will holiday shop, this year they reported the following (percentages in parentheses indicate changes from 2019. For obvious reasons we didn’t conduct the study in 2020):

Before September:   7%  (+5%)

September:   9%  (+2%)

October: 18%  (+7%)

November (before Black Friday): 20%  (+1%)

Black Friday     8%  (-15%)

Cyber Monday   24%  (+6%)

December:   14% (-6%)

If you do the math, more than half of consumers (54%, up 3%) have indicated they’ll shop before Black Friday. Oh, and our emotional engagement metrics also predicted the following:

  1. Earlier holiday shopping would become the “new normal” even in the “new-abnormal.”
  2. More consumers would actually shop before Black Friday. 
  3. Retailers would encourage this consumer-shopping paradigm, and promote “Pre-Black Friday-like” sales. A lot. “Black Friday in October,” Black Friday Prices Now!” and, a particular favorite of mine, “Black Friday on Wednesday.” 
  4. Black Friday would become a ritual for consumers, with brick-and-mortar sales declining YOY.
  5. Consumers, as ever, will be more and more in control.

So, as regards Black Friday, to borrow from Mr. Wilson’s Music Man, “Ya got trouble, my friends, right here in ‘Retail City.’ With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “C” and that stands for Consumer.

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