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Americans are busy shopping all year round. Where did that leave Black Friday?

Black Friday wasn’t as big a deal this year, but consumers are still spending at record levels.

Image of a blurry shopper in London holding a brown bag while walking past an advertisement that says “Black Friday Week.”
Customers are not lining up for Black Friday as they had before, but they aren’t buying less.
Leon Neal/Getty Images

For millions of Americans, the days (and sometimes hours) after Thanksgiving are a frenetic haze of shopping and spending. There’s Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, a brief reprieve on Sunday, and finally, Cyber Monday.

Consumers have been warned for months now that holiday shopping will be a mess. With supply chain issues and inflation in the foreground, in-demand items are hard to get ahold of and prices are noticeably higher. Data from this past weekend, though, suggests that Americans are still showing up on the biggest shopping weekend of the year, although their buying habits have changed from years past.

Retailers, too, are no longer entirely banking on the post-Thanksgiving weekend to rake in sales. Many stores, including Macy’s, Target, and Walmart, remained closed on Thanksgiving Day. Target said that distribution and call centers will have some staff on Thanksgiving, but all of its stores remained closed; Walmart decided to close as a “thank you” to its employees.

Since the pandemic, most malls have curbed their holiday shopping hours from being open around the clock to simply opening early the day after Thanksgiving. Buffalo News reported that a local fashion outlet used to host an annual midnight party to kick off Black Friday, but opted to open at 8 am instead. Retailers have struggled to staff up this year, but the gradual decline of in-person Black Friday shopping is not a direct result of fewer workers. Seasonal mall jobs have grown scarce in recent years, especially in 2020. Stores have increasingly shifted their focus toward e-commerce and sought to hire more warehouse workers.

Black Friday deals were less discounted than usual, something experts had expected, and most major retailers have moved away from doorbuster events — the significant discounts only offered in the early hours of Black Friday. This setup, of course, used to lead to long lines and rowdy crowds. Customers were prone to fighting, arguing, or even stealing items, and stores often had to hire extra security and workers to handle the shopping mobs. Since the pandemic, it seems as though stores are shying away from using the term “doorbuster” in their ads.

“If consumers see 25 percent off, they should feel really good about that,” Rob Garf of Salesforce told Bloomberg News, adding that these are “some of the lowest average discount rates that we’ve seen in recent history.” Customers, to that end, are not lining up as they had before. They aren’t buying less, though.

Instead, many Americans are shopping earlier than before. I’ve previously reported on this early fall shopping push: By nudging the holiday season earlier and earlier, retailers convinced customers of the benefits of buying early and reducing their annual holiday stress — which, this year in particular, was bound to be compounded by supply chain delays. Stores competed with each other to launch pre-Black Friday deals, which has transformed the event from a single weekend into a monthslong affair.

“Online sales on big shopping days like Thanksgiving and Black Friday are decreasing for the first time in history, and it is beginning to smooth out the shape of the overall season,” according to Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights, in an emailed press release. “What we know as Cyber Week is starting to look more like Cyber Month.”

Consumers have already spent  $99.1 billion (about a 13 percent year-over-year increase) since the start of November, according to Adobe data, which “shows not only the effectiveness of early deals in October, but also how much consumers have taken supply chain issues seriously.” Most of this spending was spread out across the month, however. Adobe reported that Black Friday and Thanksgiving did not drive significant sales compared to years past. Instead, consumer spending reportedly decreased on those days.

Despite how prices for consumer products are at a 30-year record high, shoppers are not deterred. “We saw a little bit of a decline in what [consumers] said they intended to purchase for gifts, but nothing really substantial,” Conference Board’s Lynn Franco told Vox’s Emily Stewart.

Online shopping and the popularity of direct-to-consumer brands have redefined how people approach their end-of-year buying sprees. With online shopping, consumers are less beholden to a traditional shopping calendar. They are able to buy at their convenience and are accustomed to the many deals and discounts offered by retailers year-round. While brick-and-mortar stores initially struggled with this shift to e-commerce, the pandemic made it clear that online shopping is here to stay. Many traditional retailers have poured more resources into e-commerce to compete with online-only businesses, which are raking in sales. Shopify reported that its merchants made $2.9 billion over the course of Black Friday.

While consumers might be eager to scour for things in-person again after a year of lockdowns, Black Friday has grown much tamer, likely for the better. Holiday shopping, it seems, is no longer defined by jostling through a packed mall or staying up late to wait in line. Nowadays, Americans are celebrating the season by adding more things to their virtual shopping cart — and hoping it arrives in time for Christmas.

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