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Family fun? How Black Friday became more about the 'sport' than the sales

With deals available all year long, Black Friday has become less about the shopping and more about the family fun. But there are still discounts to be had.
BJ's Wholesale Club members shop on "Black Friday," Nov. 24, in Northborough, Massachusetts.Josh Reynolds / AP

Black Friday retains its status as the biggest shopping day of the year, even though sales are increasingly spread out over a roughly weeklong period that begins before the Thanksgiving turkey is even thawed out.

“The one thing that we’re seeing this year for us is that stretching of the Black Friday-Cyber Monday weekend,” said Lila Snyder, executive vice president of ecommerce at Pitney Bowes. “The jump in sales started as early as Tuesday of this week.”

According to a Thanksgiving Day report from Adobe Analytics, American consumers had spent $1.52 billion online as of 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Thanksgiving Day, an increase of nearly 17 percent over last year, with an average order size of $132, or about 3 percent higher than last year. By the end of the day, that had risen to $2.87 billion, and by 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Black Friday, Adobe recorded $640 million in online sales. A record 61 percent of that traffic came from mobile devices, primarily smartphones.

“Very few people do all of their shopping on Black Friday. With that being said, I think the number of people heading out to go shopping... is a good bellwether for just how the season is going to be,” said Kevin Quigg, chief strategist of asset management firm ACSI Funds. “Just the fact that they're getting up and showing up is a sign for a strong holiday,” he said.

A survey from Deloitte predicted that shoppers would spend an average of $427 between Thanksgiving day and Cyber Monday, an increase of 7 percent over last year.

“It’s Black Friday week… but I don’t want to diminish the power of the day,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group. “As much as they’ve done diluting it down, it’s still going to be a big shopping day,” he said.

Black Friday is a good bellwether for just how the season is going to be.

This has had an impact on traffic patterns. While store openings — whether in the afternoon on Thursday or the early hours of the morning on Friday — still attracted crowds, analysts in different parts of the country indicated that the atmosphere was more low key than in prior years Friday morning.

“People were definitely out buying and making it an after-Thanksgiving, after-turkey kind of event,” said Joe Feldman, senior managing director at Telsey Advisory Group. “It’s hard to look at physical foot traffic in the stores and get a read on how the weekend’s going.”

“This is the year online has become such a big part of the purchasing pattern, there will be traffic but I don’t think you’re going to see as much traffic in stores,” said R.J. Hottovy, consumer equity strategist at Morningstar. “It feels like fewer and fewer people are getting out at the crack of dawn.”

But by midday Friday, retail experts surveying the malls and big-box centers of America found that a quiet early morning seemed only to indicate that shoppers took longer to sleep off those second helpings of stuffing.

“There was a ton of traffic at the mall,” said Frank Layo, managing director at Kurt Salmon, part of Accenture Strategy. “I saw a lot of bags — I saw a lot of department store bags, which I didn’t expect to see,” he said.

“People are definitely starting to come out,” Feldman said. “I’m encouraged that we did see some traffic building through the morning.”

A big reason for Black Friday’s continued appeal is that it has become something of a game, experts say.

“You have people shopping for the sport of it,” Cohen said, who added that crowds in stores tended to thin out about an hour and a half after opening. “It’s really a cross generational thing,” he added, observing that Black Friday, especially since it has crept into Thanksgiving Day evening, has become a family activity.

“Our Accenture point of view is that people are hunting for deals year-round,” said Frank Layo, managing director at Kurt Salmon, part of Accenture Strategy. “People have gameified deal-hunting through websites and apps,” he said.

According to the experts, consumers hunting for deals this Thanksgiving weekend won’t be disappointed. Adobe said it expected the biggest ecommerce discounts of the weekend to occur on Black Friday, with the steepest discounts on TVs, tablets, jewelry and appliances.

Apparel, which some analysts flagged as a category ripe for a comeback, was another area where shoppers could find steep discounts, especially at mall-based chains.

Shoppers are going for brand names this year.

“We knew the deals would be big, but 50 percent off entire stock is kind of surprising,” Layo said.

Target, which made Black Friday sale items available Thanksgiving morning on its website, reported that, by early evening, customers had made nearly three times as many order-pickup purchases as they did for all of Thanksgiving Day last year.

The retailer said popular purchases yesterday included iPads and Apple watches, gaming systems and video games.

Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing with DealNews, said brand name deals seem to be a key driver this year. In previous years, “The products were a little more generic in feel,” she said, while retailers this year are offering products like the iPad and Apple Watch, Dyson vacuums and Kitchen-Aid mixers.

“They’re capitalizing on the hype around specific trendy items [and] brands that matter to people,” she said.