The Friday after Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Black Friday is viewed as the start of the holiday shopping season, a time when U.S. retailers rake in a significant portion of the year’s profits.
Many stores offer deep discounts to attract customers, and shoppers often line up early for a chance to grab a great deal before supplies run out.
“I think it is a very good sales gimmick,” says James E. Schrager, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “And what’s been happening for a few decades now is that retailers are very worried about when they get the customer into their store for this huge seasonal buying season. And they know it comes and goes very quickly ... so this is a very good idea, so that they make sure they get their time — that is, the customer's time — in their store to show off what they have.”
Macy’s, the department store, is believed to be the first retailer to advertise after-Thanksgiving Day shopping during their Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in 1924. Black Friday shopping grew more popular in the 1930s.
“Black Friday was a way to make sure that, for the season, they would make their number,” Schrager says. “ 'Make their number,' in the retail business, means sell more than you did last year. So every retailer loves to grow. Every retailer wants to get bigger and have better market share than it had the year before.”
Legos, cameras and a high-end backpack were among the hot online searches going into Black Friday 2019, according to Google, the online search engine. But where people will actually shop on the day after Thanksgiving isn’t clear.
“I can't speak necessarily specifically to that because, of course, you don't necessarily know what any one person is doing,” says Molly VandenBerg, a Google trends expert. “When we look at search behavior, people do certainly come to Google to search for things like where to buy a particular item."
Schrager says online shopping hasn’t diminished Black Friday’s significance to the nation’s brick-and-mortar retailers.
“I think it's more important than ever,” he says. “Online retailing is new, it’s new and it’s newsy. But if you look at the numbers ... 89 percent of everything bought new is sold in regular stores.”
Online sales accounted for just 11.2 percent of total sales in the third quarter of 2019 — the months of April, May and June — according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Over the past 10 years, there’s been a little under 1 percent growth per year in online retailing.
Online shopping sales are expected to grow 18% this year, according to a recent Deloitte holiday retail survey.
The same survey finds that nearly two-thirds of shoppers plan to look online for gift inspiration. However, more than half of the consumers surveyed still plan to head into the store to see and touch a product before purchasing it.
But there are other ways to incorporate technology into the holiday shopping season.
“If you're heading out into the stores, you might want to know how crowded they're expected to be before you get there,” says VandenBerg, the Google trends expert. "And you can do this with the 'Popular Times' feature. If you're looking at a particular store, or even like a grocery shop, you would be able to see an estimate of how busy we anticipate it would be, or how long you might wait.”