Black Friday has been going on for months already — but that won't stop shoppers this week

Black Friday is becoming more about self-gifting, which is why practical items such as kitchen appliances and vacuum cleaners dominate sales this year.
Image: Black Friday
An advertisement for Black Friday sales on appliances stands on display at a Best Buy Inc. store in Paramus, N.J, on Nov. 25, 2016.Mark Kauzlarich / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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By Martha C. White

Black Friday used to be the kickoff for the holiday shopping season, but a combination of a late Thanksgiving and anxiety about tariffs — and Amazon — have erased all but the symbolic significance of the day after Thanksgiving as retail bellwether.

“I think we’ll start with a bang. I think this will be a good start to the season because it’s shorter,” said Rod Sides, vice chairman, and leader of the U.S. retail and distribution practice at Deloitte LLP.

Retailers all jockeyed to be the first to capture Americans’ holiday budgets because there was nearly a week less between Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group. “That does make them nervous. That does make them want to promote earlier.”

“Retailers consciously planned on breaking Black Friday this year earlier than ever,” he said. While some stores began selling holiday merchandise before Halloween, Cohen said the Black Friday evolution began months earlier than that.

“A lot of the luster has been taken out of the equation because we’ve seen the dilution of the power of Black Friday. We had businesses like Amazon do Prime Day in July,” he said, pointing out that many retailers launched “Black Friday in July” promotions of their own, and subsequent surveys showed that 5 percent of shoppers said they bought holiday gifts then.

Retail experts predicted that big-box stores and online shopping — not just via Amazon, but from other retail sites — will be winners this season.

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“The obvious winner is Target,” said Ryan Giannotto, director of research at GraniteShares. “This is really the story of a retailer that has learned the lessons of disruption and made the investments necessary.”

“The value and discount-oriented retailers have been winning. It seems like they’re taking market share and it seems like some department stores are donating some market share,” said Joseph Feldman, senior managing director, assistant director of research and retail analyst at the Telsey Advisory Group.

Along with Target, analysts say Walmart, Ross Stores and the TJX family of brands — Marshall’s, TJ Maxx and Home Goods — are all poised for a solid holiday season.

“Two key things we think are going to be important this holiday are off-price and also winter apparel,” said Camilla Yanushevsky, equity analyst at CFRA Research. “We think everybody is going to be looking for a bargain,” she said.

E-commerce has forced retailers to meet a higher bar in terms of convenience, and that has shifted shopping patterns even further away from malls, the traditional brick-and-mortar hubs of Black Friday. “Now, what we’re finding is convenience is just as important,” Sides said. “We’ve seen that really rise over the last several years.”

Feldman said the desire for convenience has led to the growth of "buy-online-pick-up-in-store" orders. “About 50 percent of the online orders are pickup in-store,” he said. “You may see that accelerate. People might want to have the comfort of picking it up,” he said.

This trend suggests that retail sector worries about foot traffic might be overblown. It also gives another edge to big-box and standalone stores, where in-store pickup is easier than at mall-based retailers.

Analysts say shoppers will be filling their physical and digital shopping carts with an array of home goods, electronics and clothes — much of it for themselves and their own households.

“More and more, Black Friday has been about self-gifting, and that takes impulse out of the equation,” Cohen said, adding that “practical items” like kitchen appliances and vacuum cleaners are being heavily promoted, along with big-screen TVs. “If you haven’t gotten a 65-inch television by now, you’re going to,” he said.

Analysts predict that demand for cold-weather gear, sporting goods, athletic apparel and shoes will boost retailers’ bottom lines. The trend towards experiential spending will drive ancillary categories such as luggage, fitness trackers and smartwatches, and headphones for working out, traveling and gaming.