A Monday morning quarterback’s view on the kick-off of the holiday shopping season

Black Friday has come and gone. While many shoppers again camped out for the deals, most gift buyers have feasted on the special sale prices throughout the month of November offered online. Many others were content to wait until Friday to hit the mall or go online today, Cyber Monday.

Retailers have decided that it’s fine for shoppers to spend Thanksgiving feasting on turkey and dressing, watching football and spending time with their families.

None of this is a surprise to John Talbott, associate director of the Kelley School’s Center for Education and Research in Retailing.

The nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which for years set the bar for everyone by opting to offer the deals on Thanksgiving Day, offered “pre-Black Friday” deals and competitors followed suit.

“It’s interesting that we’ve found equilibrium as opposed to that march backwards into Thanksgiving,” Talbott said, describing how retailers responded to customer sentiment about the holiday.

Rather than feel pressured to begin the holiday shopping season earlier in their stores, retailers have been taking advantage of the digital domain to generate sales though the month of November and even in late October.

John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing in IU's Kelley School of Business

John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing in IU’s Kelley School of Business

“They’ve realized that the way to handle early shopping is not so much with physical locations but to utilize the Web,” he said, adding that operationally it’s more profitable.

Outdoor outfitter REI generated some buzz when it announced that it would be closed on Black Friday as well as Thanksgiving. The company suggested through its “#OptOutside” campaign that its customers spend time with friends and family.

But REI is not Wal-Mart, Target or Sears. Unlike those companies, it is a co-op not owned by shareholders.

“They can get away with it because the people they are answering to is not Wall Street,” Talbott said. “It’s their customers and their employees. If a traditional corporation walked away from Black Friday sales, they would probably see a 1 to 2 percent drop in their November numbers and they would be crushed by Wall Street.”

While “Black Thanksgiving” may be as unappealing as leftover turkey to many, Talbott isn’t sure whether customers will reward stores that remained closed on Thursday. That’s a tough question to answer.

In previous years, much has been written about the “battle” between traditional brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers. Talbott said it’s time to declare that war over — customers today like shopping in both settings, especially when traditional retailers effectively use the Internet.

“We shouldn’t even be talking about ‘e-commerce’ anymore; it’s just ‘commerce,’” he said. “Today, the single largest location for most traditional brick-and-mortar retailers’ is their website. They are just as interested in online sales as the traditional pure-play guys like Amazon.

“And Amazon’s opening stores, so it’s just retail again.”

Companies have realized that there is value in having a tangible element of their brands, said Talbott, a former top executive at two apparel merchandisers.

“In some cases, it’s probably cheaper to acquire customers by building an appropriately sized physical space – in many cases just a showroom – than keyword and SEO marketing on the Web today, because the Internet is a very, very crowded place right now,” he said. “There have been studies suggesting that strategically placed physical locations can create a groundswell.”

Earlier this month, Talbott and the center released the latest survey findings in the FINdex, a fashion innovation index based on what college-age female shoppers are saying. The survey found that brick-and-mortar stores remain the most important places for these women to shop.

“Clearly these women embrace the evolving nature of retail today and are channel agnostic in terms of their choice of shopping destinations,” Talbott said. “The type of product or the particular purpose of the shopping trip likely drives the selection of store versus Web.

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