How omni-channel retailers struck the right balance on the blackest of Fridays for in-store shopping

How omni-channel retailers struck the right balance on the blackest of Fridays for in-store shopping
Stuart Lauchlan
Mon, 11/30/2020 – 03:17

Black Friday panned out much as retailers expected/feared as the 2020 retail online shift continued in force.

Black Friday

(Not this year…)

The story of Black Friday 2020 could be seen in the photo of Macy’s in New York in the wee small hours of the morning with literally no-one standing in line outside the store.  It was a stark, telling contrast to previous years when ravenous hoards of bargain hunters stood for hours in anticipation of a feral assault on the best deals as soon as the front doors opened.

A few hours later, images from inside the flagship store on 32nd Street confirmed the trend as a handful of shoppers could be seen wandering calmly from counter to counter. Put it this way, enforcing social distancing wasn’t going to be one of the problems facing Macy’s management on Friday!

Meanwhile the great online shift of Retail 2020 moved ever upwards. Macy’s particular performance over the Holidays weekend will emerge over the coming days, as will insights on other individual brands. But the clear picture emerging from early market data is that this was, as expected, a year when the digital elements of omni-channel retail came to the fore.

According to Adobe Analytics, Black Friday saw online sales top $9 billion, up 21.6% on the same day last year, while Salesforce’s number-crunching came out even higher – 23% year-on-year growth to $12.8 billion. Other numbers will appear from both – and other sources – after today’s Cyber Monday jamboree, which is expected to hit an all-time high in its own right, but it’s self-evident that it is those retailers who’ve put in the digital spadework that will emerge in best shape.

Physical fall

As we noted last week in a series of retail profiles and use cases, big US brands had been doing a lot of preparation in advance of the weekend, assured as they all were that this would not – could not – be a case of business-as-usual this year. Those with physical storefronts took time out to explain how they would manage to balance demand in-store with COVID-sensitive health and safety needs, from social distancing, enforced mask wearing, staggered entry to partial capacity shops and, this year’s must have, curbside pick-up.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued stark warnings that shopping in crowded stores during the holidays would be a “higher risk” activity and in the main that seems to be a message that sank home in large parts of the country. According to preliminary data from retail consultancy Sensormatic Solutions, visits to bricks-and-mortar stores declined 52% on Black Friday. Brian Field, Senior Director at the firm, notes that while everyone expected physical footfall to be down, no-one knew by quite how much:

Due to COVID-19 and social distancing requirements, shoppers were more purposeful in their in-person Black Friday shopping, causing significantly less crowds than we’ve seen in the past. This was compounded by retailers not offering as many in-store door-busters and the increasing adoption of e-commerce.

Even in major malls, crowds around the US were more commonly measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands, although Adobe’s data points to states that have tighter COVID restrictions in place were more inclined to be cautious. States that haven’t taken lockdown and social distancing policies as seriously saw higher physical attendance. That also meant that those states that are more COVID-aware saw an even higher year-on-year shift to online – 265% over Friday and Saturday.

Other points of note out of Adobe and Salesforce’s numbers:

  • Size didn’t matter – Both large and small retailers benefitted from the shift to online. Adobe found that large brands saw sales up 403% on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, while smaller firms turned in growth of 349%. Indeed, smaller firms seem to have been the quiet beneficiaries this year with Adobe noting:
  • While larger retailers have always performed better during the Thanksgiving week than smaller brands, consumers seem motivated to spend more with small retailers in 2020 as the gap  [in performance] shrunk by over 200%.

  • Getting earlier every year – A policy adopted by many retailers this year was to try to extend the bargain-hunting season across multiple days and weeks rather than placing all the emphasis on one weekend. So it was that from Amazon Prime day in October onwards, retail brands have spread their special offers out. This had an impact across what Salesforce calls Cyber Week, as pre-Holidays online sales were up significantly on previous years, with a 72% increase on Tuesday and 48% on Wednesday.
  • Thanksgiving store closures also had an impact – As noted on diginomica last week, a number of leading brands, such as Target, Best Buy and Walmart, chose to close on Thanksgiving rather than opening in the late afternoon/evening to allow for early Black Friday shopping as in previous years. As a result, footfall in physical stores was down 95% for the day. In contrast, according to Adobe’s numbers, Thanksgiving set a new online record as spending topped $5.1 billion, up 21.5 % on last year.
  • Time well spent – US consumers spent 166.6 million hours shopping online on Friday, according to Salesforce, with mobile ordering showing a 55% year-on-year growth rate. According to Adobe, $6.3 million was spent online every minute on Friday, which works out at about $27.50 per person.
  • Getting personal – There was less emphasis on mass discounting and more focus on personalized marketing online, with email offers showing a 13% increase, a 142% rise in push notifications and 156% in SMS use, according to Salesforce. Mobile was a critical platform, agrees Adobe, with $3.6 billion spent via smartphones alone.
  • Pick-up picks up – Being able to offer Buy Online, Pick-up In Store and curbside pick-up benefitted omni-savvy retailers, with the two services seeing a 52% increase in use on Black Friday itself.

My take

So far, so pretty much as expected. I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of pictures on social media of marauding shoppers getting into fist-fights over the last Smart TV on offer, although the images of little lines of determined bargain hunters standing in the dark outside Best Buy was rather sad in its own way.

I suppose a lot of the preparation that big brands had made to convince consumers that it was safe to come inside their stores might be said to have been wasted, but then again, those best practices should be part of the retail norm for the time being. Health and safety is for life, not just for the Holidays.

What happens today (Monday) will be interesting to observe. There has clearly been a shift to pushing the sales season back prior to Thanksgiving, which has been successful, but most commentators are expecting to see pent-up demand unleashed today to create the biggest Cyber Monday results to date.

Image credit – Pixabay

Disclosure – At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.


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