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How Black Friday continues to lose its buzz

How Black Friday continues to lose its buzz

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Hannah Andrews, left, of Newfane, and Brianna Gelnett, of Lockport, do Christmas shopping at the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls USA.

Tomorrow is Black Friday – or what's left of it.

The big day isn't nearly as special as it used to be.

Retailers, eager to get first dibs at consumers' pocketbooks, have launched their big holiday sales earlier and earlier every year – diluting the urgency of a one-day shopping extravaganza.

Shoppers have found they like shopping online in their pajamas better than lining up outside in the middle of the cold, dark night.

And the internet has made it easier to research prices and shop the best deals all season long.

So this year's Black Friday may be the most underwhelming one yet.

Gone are the doorbusters that used to draw shoppers en masse. Supply chain shortages and rising inflation have prompted retailers to offer deals more sparingly.

With labor costs up and retail workers in short supply, some stores won't even open until after sunrise – something often unheard of at national retail outlets before the pandemic.

And with Covid cases rising and mask mandates reinstated, fighting crowds in stores is the last thing many people want to do.

"Black Friday has lost its luster for years now," said Russell Fulton, general manager at Eastern Hills Mall.

The Eastern Hills Mall will open at 7 a.m. Friday and close at 7 p.m. The Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls USA, which used to kick off Black Friday at midnight after Thanksgiving dinners, will not open until 8 a.m. Friday. McKinley Mall will open even later, at 9 a.m.

It's a far cry from years past, when JCPenney opened at 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving and stayed open around the clock until 10 p.m. on Black Friday.

Finding people to work on Thanksgiving or wake up at 3 a.m. to deal with the intense Black Friday environment is difficult at the best of times, but amid a deadly pandemic and a shortage of retail workers, it could be insurmountable.

The competition for workers has pushed labor costs up, making it more expensive to stay open all night or open early. And dampened foot traffic has given retailers little reason to try to make marathon Black Friday weekend hours work.

The term "doorbuster" has been repurposed by marketers to signal a great deal. But true doorbusters are free gifts or extremely discounted merchandise available in very limited numbers the instant stores open. They're designed to drive foot traffic to brick-and-mortar stores and, since that is being discouraged for various reasons again this year, they're nowhere to be found.

Retailers are still trying to drive consumers to shop early, but they're driving traffic to their websites instead. In a bold reversal, Walmart offered online-only access to some of the season's hottest gifts, such as the Sony PlayStation 5 and XBox Series X. Heading into the holiday, in-store foot traffic is down roughly 19% compared to pre-Covid numbers, according to Sensormatic Solutions, the global retail arm of Johnson Controls.

The push to start has been happening for a long time. But that pressure went into overdrive during the pandemic, said Charles Lindsey, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo's School of Management.

"At first, it started as large retailers sought to compete with Amazon and its Amazon Prime Day. Also, retailers are competing with each other for consumers’ holiday budget and have been trying to lock in a percentage of the budget earlier and earlier in the season," he said.

The earlier consumers shop, the more they spend.

"When consumers are rounding out their holiday spending later in the season, they might not factor in those early purchases and splurge later, thereby increasing their total amount spent," Lindsey said.

Shorter hours have allowed stores to save money on operating costs while maintaining revenue. And, at least for now, stores have managed to close early without facing backlash from inconvenienced consumers. 

Walmart's three-part Black Friday sales event is almost over. The first burst started earlier in the month and the final portion started Monday. Amazon started its first Black Friday sales Oct. 4. Best Buy followed on Oct. 19.

Six in 10 people have already begun Christmas shopping, according to the National Retail Federation, and roughly half of those people started earlier than they normally do. Consumers had already completed more than a quarter of their shopping by the beginning of November, the retail group said.

But even though the big day has been watered down, it is still expected to bring in the big bucks. The National Retail Federation expects 108 million people to shop online and in stores on Black Friday.

"Although holiday spending is more diffuse or spread out than it used to be, Black Friday it still predicted to be the biggest shopping day of the year," Lindsey said.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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