Lessons from Black Friday/Cyber Monday Without Missing the Mark

The term Black Friday as we know it was coined back in 1966, to describe the terrible traffic and jammed stores that confronted people trying to shop on the Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving weekend. It seems that as motivation for retail buyers, Black Friday is not an inspired choice of words, nor was the term new (although by then most people had forgotten its origins).

Originally, Black Friday had nothing to do with shopping or Thanksgiving. The term was first associated with September 24, 1869, when two gold speculators in New York City caused a stock market and commodity crash, and escaped punishment because of corruption.

And let’s not forget Black Thursday, October 24, 1929 the day we peg to the start of the Great Depression, followed a few days later by Black Tuesday, when the market lost another 33% in value and fortunes big and small were wiped out. So today, we have placed Thursday and Tuesday with Friday and Monday.

Clearly, none of the above inspired mad shop ping…but retailers are always optimistic. Black Friday was named because the retailers were now awash with black ink in profits. The most successful among them saw financial gains throughout holiday season that defined their success for the year… and clearly long before quarterly earnings and guidance.

To me, this is very ironic… because as I consume the news of Black Friday and its follow on Cyber Monday, I find its reporting akin to the speculation of that terrible day back in 1869. Once again, it seems that our out-of-control buying and need for “that thing”—whatever “that thing” may be—is as tied to financial results as it is to personal fulfillment.

I will leave it to you to follow the full holiday retailing story over the next few weeks. However, I must urge you to look at pricing, product availability, shipping and, of course, advertising as the retail story plays out between now and Christmas, and then through the following week as discount sales increase and returns escalate.

But I must point to a few initial reports that I think highlight the irony and create (yes, I will say it) a Digibabble environment around the whole season. To begin with, numerous articles cite increased consumer confidence based on more jobs and general optimism, which translate to increased commercial potential. So far so good.

As I have written, many times, Digital is Everything, But Not Everything is Digital. And a rising tide lifts all boats…or those that are seaworthy, at least. Obviously, the leaky buckets wont float, so why bother even to discuss them?

CNBC, amongst many, reported:

“Black Friday boosts battered department stores, some of which are claiming a ‘record’ weekend”

That record weekend, by the way, is online and off… bought in-store and remotely.

And it’s no surprise that Amazon dominated online sales. Business Insider also reported:

“Amazon seizes half of all online Black Friday sales in an ‘eye-popping’ show of dominance”

And Walmart self-reported their own success across channels.

Yet I found the following report in Fortune the most interesting of all, and the one that all of us should be paying attention to, titled, “Kohl’s CEO Says Black Friday Has Been Stronger This Year.”

No doubt, some of you are wondering: Why am I enamored with a story about an old-fashioned retailer that has had trouble staying relevant?

While the piece reads with a sense of some of the basic, good and solid retail best practices  Kohl’s has reinstituted, they are sort of obvious… or should be to anyone who studies Amazon and Bezos.

But Kohl’s has gone a step further:

“The chain has struggled to return to sales growth in recent years, and Mansell has made doing whatever it takes to get people to physical stores paramount in his strategy. This in part explains the chain’s controversial move to test out handling returns for Amazon.com (amzn, +2.66%) at about 80 of its 1,160 stores, in the Los Angeles and Chicago markets, beginning last month.

The results of those efforts are promising so far, Mansell said, cautioning that it is still very early in the experiment to draw conclusions. “That is really delivering on the objective we had, which is to drive people into stores and give them another experience they don’t get somewhere else,” the CEO said.”

This thought is echoed in Fast Company’s longform piece, which reviewed Amazon’s power to actually help retail:

“Despite Wall Street’s pessimism, industry leaders sound downright bullish on the future of traditional retail. Why else, they argue, would Amazon spend $13.4 billion to buy Whole Foods? Sure, the competition is fiercer than ever, and icons such as Sears and JCPenney are dying. But they believe that the narrative has been oversimplified… Malls grew too quickly, at twice the rate of the population, from 1970 to 2015… What we’re seeing now, industry executives say, is a rational, albeit painful, course correction.”

The article continues:

“The idea that everybody needs to be terrified of Amazon is completely wrong,” says Brian Spaly, who cofounded two e-commerce-centric startups, Bonobos (menswear) and Trunk Club (a wardrobe-in-a-box service), which sold to Walmart and Nordstrom, respectively, for nine-figure sums. “Everybody needs to figure out what makes them special and use those weapons to compete.”

And there you have it. The future as envisioned by Jeff Bezos, as he buys and creates physical retail space, all with an eye to a profitable time to come.

Using brick-and-mortar for returns is not new. It’s a powerful strategy for many “omni” retail brands… but for Amazon this could be a game over move.

Think about the symbiosis here. Buy online from Amazon, return to any store (no doubt a store using Amazon’s online fulfillment), see some serendipitous purchase… buy again, and then more online.

I bet that Bezos gets it more than anyone else.

So as you read about what some analysts are already calling the most successful Black Friday/Cyber Monday combo ever, don’t take the rabbit hole route like they have, which follows mostly online sales. As I’ve said from the start, this isn’t all about Amazon’s online sales, or anyone else’s.

Don’t let the people who created and then coined Black Days drive your thinking and analysis.

Be open like Bezos. Study Kohl’s and visit an Amazon Store. I’m ready to bet that the answers will unfold from there because unlike the analysts he is following People…. People First.

Because Bezos understands, better than most, what an anonymous author once said:

“Only one shopping day left ’til tomorrow.”

And there you have it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been following a pair of wireless headphones and have to pounce!

What do you think?


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