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Even Before Black Friday, Retail Deals Will Go Online

Amanda Thomas Perry used to skip sleeping on Thanksgiving night so she could be at Lowe’s or Wal-Mart before dawn on Friday for the special “door-buster” deals.

Shoppers leave a store on 'Black Friday' in New York City.
Getty Images
Shoppers leave a store on 'Black Friday' in New York City.

But after too many so-called Black Fridays where she felt nauseated from lack of sleep — and one when her husband, overwhelmed by the discounts, arrived at the register with armfuls of digital photo frames they did not need — Ms. Perry will be starting her holiday sales shopping from the computer in her living room on Thanksgiving Day.

“You’re warmer, and you don’t have to deal with cranky people,” said Ms. Perry, a college student who lives in Murray, Ky.

A few years ago, Thanksgiving was not even considered a shopping day, as most stores are closed. But this year, retailers are driving customers to the Web with more specials than ever — door busters without the door — creating an online jump-start to the traditional Black Friday rush.

“It’s going to be a very competitive day,” said Kevin Mansell, chairman and chief executive of Kohl’s, the department store chain with more than 1,000 outlets nationwide, which plans to offer almost all of its Black Friday specials online beginning on Thursday.

The Web deals are wide-ranging. Walmart.comis offering discounts of up to 40 percent on almost 150 items, triple the number of specials in 2009. At Radio Shack, Best Buy, Macy’s and J. C. Penney, almost every Black Friday deal can be had online starting on Thursday. Even Web-only merchants like Amazon.comare offering steep discounts that day.

Consumer Nation - Holiday Central Edition - See Complete Coverage
Consumer Nation - Holiday Central Edition - See Complete Coverage

“Just because they’re at home on Thanksgiving and most stores are closed, that doesn’t mean they don’t want the opportunity to go online, to shop, to build their gift list,” said Mr. Mansell of Kohl’s, which like most retailers will extend its Thursday deals to Friday, too.

For several years now, both Thanksgiving and the Friday after have grown in importance for online retailers, which previously directed their late November promotions almost entirely to the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Last year, $318 million was spent online on Thanksgiving, an increase of more than 10 percent from the year before, and $595 million was spent the next day, an increase of 11 percent. While the Cyber Monday total was bigger, $887 million, it grew only 5 percent from 2008, according to comScore, an Internet research company.

Retail analysts and executives said they expected the numbers to be even greater this year.

The reasons are chiefly economic: in-store sales for the last few years have been dreary, and the Internet is a crucial place to attract new customers who are not early risers. Retail sales have risen about 1.5 to 2.5 percent this year, according to SpendingPulse, an information service of MasterCard Advisors. By contrast, the most recent figures for e-commerce showed growth of more than 11 percent for early November alone, MasterCard said.

“The competitive landscape is one driver leading retailers to be more aggressive earlier,” said Eric Best, chief executive of the Mercent Corporation, which aims to help brands sell products on e-commerce sites.

Retailers say they are also responding to their customers.

“I don’t think retailers would tell you it was our target to start shopping earlier — that’s what consumers wanted,” said Steve Nave, senior vice president and general manager of Walmart.com. “As broadband penetration, specifically, started to grow, customers on that day, once they were done with their Thanksgiving celebrations, they weren’t necessarily ready to go to a store, but it’s pretty easy to pull up a Web page and start researching.”

Wal-Mart is trying to capitalize on those advance researchers. On Monday, it plans to announce that it will match any competitor’s Black Friday prices in Wal-Mart stores as long as customers bring in the competitor’s ads.

Also, traffic to retail Web sites began to grow as stores put Black Friday ads and tools online. At Walmart.com, for instance, shoppers can print out in-store maps that label where specially discounted product are located. The increased online traffic led many retailers to offer Web deals so visitors would buy something, not just browse.

Michael T. Theilmann, executive vice president of J. C. Penney, said: “We think it’s a way to get some of that early business. We’d rather capture it online than open on Thursday.”

Marie Prophete, a 23-year-old college student in Fullerton, Calif., made the switch to online holiday shopping after she went to a Wal-Mart on the morning of Black Friday and found that not only was the store out of specially discounted video game consoles, but also that every popular video game was gone.

“Online, they have a warehouse of the stuff, so you’ll know you’ll get it — they won’t run out in a few seconds,” Ms. Prophete said. “I was like, oh, man, never mind. I’ll just shop online.”

Even if shoppers do wind up in the stores on Black Friday, they often end up buying online anyway, said Craig Berman, a spokesman for Amazon.com.

“There are lots of customers who will be out and about, and maybe comparing prices via mobile devices and may end up shopping on Black Friday through their smartphones,” he said.

Though it expands potential customers, running online deals on Thursday and Friday poses challenges for retailers. Shoppers who wait for hours in line and find that a door-buster deal has been snapped up — but that people on the Web got the item without even waiting — could feel some ill will.

To avoid that problem, Kathee Tesija, executive vice president of merchandising for Target, said the company Web site and stores ran different deals.

“We don’t want any confusion between online and in stores,” she said. “There are limited quantities, and our intent is for them to last the whole two days, but sometimes we do run short.”

Another risk for stores is that retailers traditionally earn little profit on door-buster specials to get shoppers inside, hoping they will add other, more profitable, items to their shopping carts. Online, that is less likely to happen.

“I can budget better,” said Ms. Prophete, the California student. “When I go to the store, you make a list, but you usually get stuff that’s not on the list.”

Not that online shopping cannot be fun for bargain seekers who enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

In Kentucky, Ms. Perry said she would be at home on Thanksgiving, but poised for the virtual version of rushing the door.

She has created accounts at Walmart.com, BestBuy.com, Toysrus.comand others to store her shipping address. She plans to have the product pages for the Microsoft Xbox and flat-screen televisions pulled up before the sales start. She has even typed her credit card number into a Word document so she can copy and paste it into the ordering site rather than typing it out and risk taking too long.

“You have to get in quick or they’re gone, like within five minutes,” she said. “It’s still a competition.”

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