“We haven’t had the ability to compete effectively with Black Friday, and now we do,” said Andy Page, president of the Gilt Groupe, who predicted that poaching in-store shoppers would lead to Gilt’s best Black Friday ever.
The aggressive promotions by Gilt, Amazon, HSN and other online companies are creating a frenzy among traditional retailers, who have counted the Friday after Thanksgiving as the busiest shopping day of the year.
A few are fighting back. Best Buy, already acquainted with the sting of online price-comparison apps, declines to display standard bar codes on some products so they cannot be easily scanned by smartphones.
But online merchants have technology — and increasingly, consumer behavior — on their side. Almost 10 percent of e-commerce purchases made in October came through mobile devices, according to research from IBM Coremetrics, up from about 3 percent a year earlier. About 43 percent of Americans with cellphone service own smartphones, according to Nielsen. Amazon, the nation’s biggest e-commerce site, says that the number of American customers who shop Amazon via only their mobile device has nearly tripled since last year.
Not only can online merchants now offer a relatively annoyance-free alternative to shoppers stuck in crowded stores, but they can also even exploit the faster download speeds on free wireless networks promoted by retailers like Nordstrom and Macy’s. And most are throwing in free shipping.
“If we can take advantage of customers when they want to shop and they’re aggravated by a physical experience, it’s a real win-win,” said Ben Fischman, chief executive of Rue La La, a subscriber-based online merchant that will offer mobile deals on both Thursday and Friday at times that it expects people will be stuck in lines.
Last year, the online giants stole some of the Black Friday riches by offering early Web specials on Thanksgiving Day. But the move to mobile-only discounts — the specials will not be available on Web sites, in most cases — can lead to “a massive amount of share-stealing,” said Joel Bines, a managing director in the retail practice at the consultancy AlixPartners, “if I get just a small percentage to make a purchase standing in the store.”
And there is not much retailers can do to stop customers from checking out competitors, he said.
“If a retailer tried to block cellular connections, they would be absolutely vilified, though I’m sure it’s been discussed,” he said. Best Buy, for its part, “does not place manufacturers’ bar codes on the display products or signage and has never done so,” said a spokeswoman, Lisa Hawks, but it has added QR codes that take people to Best Buy’s mobile site.
Given the growing mobile market, the online retailers say this Black Friday is an ideal opportunity to encourage people already comfortable with mobile shopping to buy more, and to get others to at least consider it. The online retailers say they are marketing their Friday deals heavily, with online ads, mobile ads and e-mail, and not just to their established customers.
“We want to drive awareness of mobile and have it have its own raison d’être,” said Jill Braff, executive vice president for digital commerce at HSN.
HSN, formerly known as the Home Shopping Network, will start mobile sales at midday on Thanksgiving and sprinkle them throughout high-traffic store-shopping times on Thursday and Friday. Amazon last week issued an Android version of its price-check app, and will encourage shoppers to use it in stores on Friday. And at least one physical retailer is taking a cue from the online competition: Walgreens, not traditionally a hot destination on that Friday, will begin offering coupons just to users of its mobile app on that day.
Mandy Chan, of Las Vegas, says she has pretty much given up using her laptop for online shopping — her 2-year-old commandeers it for “Barney” viewings — and instead shops on her phone. Among others, she has a Gilt Groupe app set to alert her via text message for deals.
Ms. Chan plans to go to stores like Gap and Nordstrom on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and says any mobile-only deals will be entirely welcome. “I’m usually just browsing my phone while I’m waiting in line,” she said. And if they can beat the in-store prices, she will buy the item, even if it means returning home empty-handed.
“Even families that are middle-class, we are all still struggling, and if we can save even $5, $10, it makes it easier for us in the long run,” Ms. Chan said.
Mr. Bines, the retail consultant, predicted there would be plenty of shoppers willing to consider mobile purchases since the average Black Friday shopper is not “someone whose entire year is planned around circulars, hotel rooms and late-night shopping visits.”
“The vast majority of them are familiar with mobile,” he said, “but only a percentage of them have been dipping their toe in mobile shopping.”
Asked whether Nordstrom was worried about its shoppers checking rivals’ sites for deals, especially since it has added free wireless to its stores, a Nordstrom spokesman, Colin Johnson, said, “We’re not afraid to compete.”
“The shopping landscape is changing very rapidly, and so we want to evolve with our customers,” he said.