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Holiday shopping: Month-long sale season may dilute the impact of Black Friday

New York (CNN) — Black Friday, for plenty of people, will mark a day of relaxation after family and friends gather around a traditional turkey dinner the night before. For serious deal hunters, however, there will be no rest.

The day after Thanksgiving historically has marked the start of the holiday shopping rush. On Black Friday, retailers hype up what they claim are the best deals — ever — of the season on popular gifting items such as clothes, electronics and toys. But this year, retailers clearly threw out that playbook and rolled out Black Friday-like deals weeks in advance of the big day.

What that means for bargain seekers, according to industry watchers, is that some of the best deals may have either already flowed through, possibly watering down the impact of Black Friday, or will be staggered to run after Black Friday to entice shoppers to keep spending more right up to Christmas.

This matters because the November-December gift-buying months combined can account for about 20%, or a sizable chunk, of retailers’ sales for the full year.

The National Retail Federation, a trade group for the retail industry, forecasts holiday sales this year to increase 4% (not adjusted for inflation), slower than the 5.4% increase in 2022.

“Black Friday [is] more like Grey Friday. The dilution of the power of Black Friday has begun again this year. Gone is the sense of urgency and excitement. But the quest for value is still there,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst with market research firm Circana.

It used to be that if shoppers wanted to grab those discounts, it meant waking up at the crack of dawn to camp outside their favorite store to be among the first in to load up the cart with so-called “doorbuster” specials, the extra-juicy discounts that offered for a limited amount of time to lure in early Black Friday crowds.

So if you snoozed, you lost.

In recent years, though, this shopping bonanza has undergone a noticeable evolution as online shopping gained popularity, especially among younger consumers who couldn’t care much for doorbuster promotions.

“The quest for value is still there, but online shopping has changed the game to now be about doing the homework online and maybe venturing into stores. Online has made value hunting convenient,” said Cohen.

Retailers have responded to this shifting sentiment about Black Friday by stretching out the one-day deals blitz into a week-long, or even month-long event in hopes of jumpstarting holiday shopping earlier amid concerns about the spending ability of consumers with the overhang of rising prices, a re-start of student loan repayments, and higher interest and mortgage rates.

There’s a tug-of-war happening between retailers and consumers right now, said Adam Davis, managing director with Wells Fargo. Compared to last year when stores were overloaded with excess holiday merchandise and therefore sharply cut prices to clear it out, retailers this year are in a much better situation with inventory.

“With tighter inventory, retailers might not have to be as promotional. It means retailers can be more methodical with their promotions and promote less,” he said. This also allows retailers to improve their profit margins in the all-important year-end quarter.

At the same time, retailers know that consumers have come to expect the heavy holiday sales. If they skimp on them, they’ll lose the sale. “Consumers have learned to buy a deal and if they don’t get the deal today, someone else will have a deal for them tomorrow,” said Cohen.

How deep will the discounts be?

Cohen doesn’t expect Black Friday sales to be more aggressive than last year.

“Discounts are there, doorbusters will show up in places but the value of the discounts will remain closer to 25% to 30% off,” he said. “Retailers have learned to sell out rather than sell off, meaning it’s better to sell out at higher prices than have to discount and lose money to sell all the goods.”

Expects the best bargains, 40% to 70%, off on things like clothing, shoes, even some Lego sets, said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst and senior writer with shopping comparison site DealNews.

“It is a lengthier shopping season because retailers were rolling out early Black Friday deals as early as October. That can be good for consumers who are looking to save and to stick to their budget,” she said. “But it can also cause some shoppers to feel sales fatigue. You get so used to seeing everything on sale that at some point brain starts to not believe it or go numb to it.”

Elsewhere, she advised against buying toys on Black Friday unless you absolutely have to get that hottest toy of the year which might sell out superfast if you wait.

“Closer to Christmas, you could see discounts of 50% to 70% closer. So December is a good time for toys but not if you don’t want to risk something selling out,” Ramhold said.

Black Friday is looking good for bargains on gadgets like TVs, laptops and iPhones, especially for iPhone 15s and the new Apple Watch Series 9.

“There are some surprising good deals on the iPhone 15s. We’re very used to seeing the latest iPhone deals bundled with gift cards for Black Friday but not to they point where it makes the phone essentially free. That kind of is a surprise to me,” she said.

Walmart’s first round of early Black Friday deals included a 50-inch TV house brand for $148. “That sold out in the blink of an eye,” she said. “I’m also seeing Chromebooks for $99 and budget laptops for $200 or so.”

If you’re hunting for bling, it might be better to wait. “Avoid buying jewelry around Black Friday. The better deals come at the end of January as retailers start to ramp up for Valentine’s Day.” Ramhold said.

Other purchases worth waiting on are furniture and home decor. “President’s Day is better for furniture and mattress deals,” she said. “There’ll be black Friday deals on holiday decor but if you can wait until after the holidays, prices will be much better as retailers get rid of excess holiday products.”

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