In the Trenches on Black Friday

Out the door at 6:36 a.m. on a rainy (what else) Seattle morning, I was already late for the Black Friday sales. Close on 24 hours late. What used to be a one-day post-Thanksgiving Day ritual has snuck forward in recent years to form what the media are calling "Gray Thursday". Online "Black Friday" sales started days or even weeks earlier. Just like we've experienced "Christmas creep" with the "silly selling season" starting in September, retailers went as early as they dared to get the jump on competitors.

Black Friday broke borders too. BBC News reported that Amazon UK had its busiest day ever this year after introducing the concept on that side of the pond in 2010. Brazilian shoppers took part in their own version of Black Friday too, even though, as the LA Times noted, "they don't celebrate Thanksgiving and don't have the day off on Friday".

Back in Seattle at the local Target, a girl on the checkout told me she had worked all day on Thanksgiving at the Seattle Premium Outlets, then backed up to man the till at Target from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. At Marshalls (an off-price retailer), a bleary-eyed sales associate on the register said she had shopped till she (literally) dropped on Thanksgiving evening -- hitting the hay at 2:30 a.m.

When I turned up around 7 a.m. at the local group of big box stores, the car park was two-thirds full, and shoppers were cruising the aisles like sharks, on the hunt for bargains. Toys were popular, as was technology. This was a strictly take-no-prisoners affair though. One burly male shopper was busily checking his smartphone to ensure that the $800 large-screen TV was indeed a deal at $200 off. "Barely worth buying", he sniffed, when I asked what he thought.

Some stores were busier than others. Target was busy-ish, with sale dump-bins half-empty after overnight trading, and buyers picking over the remnants like the carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey. At Petco, you could have fired a cannon through the store and not hit anyone. Obviously pets and their owners were not all that excited by the prospect of hitting the sales early and picking up a "bargain bone".


Just before 8 a.m. electronics store Best Buy was on the brink of its second Black Friday opening in 15 hours. The store had welcomed shoppers on Thanksgiving from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., then closed to re-stock, and opened again at 8am on Black Friday itself. The "double dip" approach seemed to have worked. A well-ordered line stretched along the front of the store, under the awning of the next-door retailer, and two police cars were there to control the "crowds" (or maybe just keep an eye on theft).

When the clock ticked over past eight o'clock, shoppers surged in, nabbing the best bargains. I counted 60 x 32 inch LED TV's stacked up, ready to be carted away. One man was dragging a monster carton housing an enormous TV towards the register. Our ancestors felled sabre-tooth tigers. The modern hunter nabs a different kind of beast.

The real doorbusters had disappeared hours before of course. The shelves at Best Buy were clear of Beats by Dr. Dre headphones at $80 each -- down from $170. But hopeful shoppers were still roaming the store, catalogs clutched in one hand, smartphones in the other, seeing what was left.

As I write this, Black Friday has ticked over to Saturday, but the sales events continue. Today is "Small Business Saturday" (an American Express promotion supporting owner-operators), and then comes "Cyber Monday" (the big online sales day) and "Giving Tuesday" (supporting charities).

Only Sunday escapes without a retail handle. But you can bet your bottom dollar it won't be a day of rest for retailers. The relentless run continues towards Christmas and beyond, as merchants race to extract as many dollars from consumers as possible and keep their stakeholders happy.

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