Black Friday’s Identity Crisis

The usual staple of holiday shopping has changed dramatically since the pandemic. Will that be costly?

The department store espresso machine was half the usual price and the leather briefcase was 30% off—both Black Friday sales. Except it wasn’t the day after Thanksgiving—it was Halloween. And the same sale will probably be called that right up through the holidays.

Black Friday—that one-day-only gleeful day of consumerism—is undergoing an identity crisis. As many have already noticed, it is no longer on Friday. Many sales have been up and running since early November, and retailers are explicitly shifting away from the 6 a.m. Black Friday duke-outs of yore and discouraging high traffic on Friday. Call it yet another tradition that has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everybody I know already has their shopping carts full,” says David Vied, global sector leader for the Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice at Korn Ferry.

To be sure, all our mailboxes are stuffed full of Black Friday ads this year, some for sales events that will indeed take place in person on Friday. But most of those sales extend at least into Saturday if not the whole week. And they’re also available online. All this redefines Black Friday as a seasonal deal, meaning the end of an era is upon us.

The expression “Black Friday” came into widespread usage in the 1980s, fueled by sales designed to clear out inventory and attract thousands of shoppers past aisles of products on their way to those 70%-off TVs on the back wall. Black Thursday soon followed, with stores luring full-bellied shoppers for bargain-basement deals on Thanksgiving itself. The conceptual assault on Black Friday began six years ago with Amazon’s Prime Day sale, which spurred a flood of “Black Friday in July” deals by competitors.

Black Friday’s sudden death spiral is triggered in part by short staffing. Many retailers have raised their entry-level pay 15% to 25% in the last year yet still remain in a hiring pickle due to fears of COVID exposure. “The difficulty with retail right now is that employees have to be in person,” says Michele Capra, vice president of client services for talent acquisition at Korn Ferry. “It’s creating less of a pipeline.” Retailers typically hire from their immediate local community (often their own shoppers), creating a much smaller labor pool than, say, call centers and remote customer service jobs. “There are also a lot of remote medical and pharmacy positions, all offering comparable wages and similar incentive programs,” Capra says.

But more than anything, supply chain woes are forcing retailers to direct both in-person and online consumer traffic away from Black Friday. If a shipment of those espresso machines somehow got off the boat and past the shipyard, stores would race to get them off the shelves. “You can’t promote what you don’t have,” says retail expert Craig Rowley, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry. For their part, consumers aren’t waiting, in case the gift they want can’t arrive before the holidays.

The shift in sales strategy carries some risks, of course. Much of the gleeful excitement that a time-pressed sale creates is gone when Black Friday is stretched over weeks. “It is a tradition for extended families to get together for the Thanksgiving holiday and to shop on Friday,” says Rowley. Experts say countdown clocks online, among other tactics, created excitement that generated enormous traffic volume. Getting all this right is critical to the retail industry: in 2019, before the pandemic, Black Friday sales online alone exceeded $7.4 billion, with holiday sales accounting for about 30% of all retail revenues.

Staffing-wise, experts say many retailers are simply trying survive the holiday season. “A lot of stores are offering sign-on bonuses starting at $500 just for holiday employees, and allowing their staff to work overtime during the period of Black Friday and the holidays,” says Capra. “The problem with that is potential burnout—there has to be a better long-term solution.”