Should the holiday selling season be retired?

Discussion
Photo: Target
Oct 18, 2017
Tom Ryan

While the relevancy of Black Friday has been widely questioned in recent years, Denise Lee Yohn, brand expert and author, believes it’s time for retailers to downplay the holiday selling season overall and better balance sales opportunities throughout the year.

In a column for Harvard Business Review, she argues that the “frustration and costs” around staffing, inventory and the supply chain aren’t worth it for the brief holiday season, especially amid fluctuations due to weather and other retailers’ actions. The holiday season is also not paying off as much as shoppers increasingly head online to avoid the holiday crowds and hold out for post-holiday deals in January.

Finally, shoppers, particularly wealthier ones, are “used to buying the products they want when they want them,” rather than waiting for deals. Part of the reason is that they’re “in shopping mode all the time” due to readily-accessible information and product online.

While holiday season campaigns boost traffic, retailers could drive more consistent traffic throughout the year by planning regular launches of new products and brands, offering exclusive access or services, and making a bigger deal of other holidays.

“The technology and analytics now exist for retailers to better predict what people want and when they want it, so they should use these capabilities to move away from the traditional seasonal approach,” Ms. Lee Yohn wrote. “It’s almost as antiquated as mono-channel retail — and just as limiting.”

Other research arriving this year has shown Black Friday continues to erode in importance.

A survey that came out last week from Market Track found only 30 percent indicating they would shop in-store this Thanksgiving (down from 50 percent last year), and only 40 percent plan to shop in-store on Black Friday. The market data and analysis company likewise cited the “buy now” trend as a contributor to the decline. Their statement read, “Technology has enabled shoppers to exist in a perennial ‘buy’ state, and successful brands and retailers have become experts at seizing the moment of influence, whenever and wherever that may be.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should retailers de-emphasize the holiday season? To what degree is a “buy now” mentality reducing the holiday opportunity versus deal fatigue, online’s appeal and other factors? Do you see a path for retailers in better distributing sales throughout the year?

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Braintrust
"Talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water. The holiday season is a real thing."
"Sam Walton best understood this was a failing idea with a model that made money every day."
"Retailers should optimize for the holiday season — not de-emphasize it."

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30 Comments on "Should the holiday selling season be retired?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

For decades consumers have been conditioned to buy during the holidays, and despite the changing/evolving shopper patterns many still will. De-emphasizing the holiday season is a mistake. But the bigger point is that this is not an either/or proposition. Retailers can deliver an exciting holiday season for the shoppers who are inclined/excited by the season AND also do a better job of promoting throughout the year.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Let’s not go for a ride on the pendulum. The holiday season is important. Opening on Thanksgiving and doorbusters, not so much. Gosh, talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water. The holiday season is a real thing.

Max Goldberg
Staff

While Ms. Yohn makes a number of valid points about using data to create better selling opportunities, consumers spend more in November and December. Retailers need to compete for those holiday dollars, while trying to better distribute sales throughout the year. Retailers de-emphasize the holiday season at their own peril.

David Livingston
Guest
9 months 2 days ago

Over time consumer behavior will dictate what happens and retailers won’t have to do anything. It will resolve itself on its own as consumer behavior changes.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust
I don’t see the holiday shopping season going away anytime soon. We are mentally programmed for holidays with favorite foods, families and friends getting together and yes, exchanging gifts. What retailers need to do is re-think the holiday shopping season starting by condensing the period and not continuing to extend it. Does it make sense to open Thanksgiving Day, inconveniencing all your employees for the few extra dollars you might do? No. Even opening at 5 a.m. on Black Friday is ridiculous and again all you’re doing is inconveniencing employees and not seeing a healthy return because by 10 a.m. all the “good deals” are gone and typically so are the customers who came in at 5 a.m. What about the retailers who start Black Friday promotions before Thanksgiving? Do they do more business? Many customers enjoy shopping during the holiday season. Yes, it can be a bit stressful at times shopping in-store, but there is still a higher number of customers purchasing from brick-and-mortar than online. Brick-and-mortar to date is over $3.9 trillion in… Read more »
Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Traditionally the holiday season has been the most critical time for retailers to go from the red to the black. The importance of the 4th quarter remains, yet there are opportunities for retailers to provide transporting experiences throughout the year. The holiday season’s importance should remain, as there is such a significant amount of business to be done and it’s tied so closely to the seasonal merchandising strategies.

The call to arms is for retailers to provide compelling values, promotions and great shopping experiences throughout the year, and not just focus only on the November/December time period.

Phil Chang
BrainTrust
Phil Chang
Retail Influencer, Speaker and Consultant
9 months 2 days ago

Theoretically, holiday season should be retired. Realistically, retail is all about the occasions. We have nothing but occasions in our retail calendar, so I don’t know how we stop doing special event selling. Whether it’s Memorial Day, Halloween, Easter, Valentines Day, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, retail is built on occasions. I think it’s more about how you make these moments special to the consumer, and teaching retail to remain calm and not jump in because of FOMO. Black Friday probably has more players than it’s supposed to mostly because retailers are concerned about missing out on a consumer’s spending dollars.

I think it’s more about ensuring that whether you’re a brand or a retailer that the holiday season is relevant to you, and you’re discounting to drive meaningful sales numbers.

Naomi K. Shapiro
BrainTrust

I was about to write a blog post to the effect of, “are retailers going to take the sales out of the holidays?” My company’s research two years ago indicated that retailers were planning fewer sales. I didn’t understand it until I realized that using the science of Big Data for price optimization and inventory management was beginning to take hold, and retailers were realizing they didn’t HAVE to discount as much or as often to make a profit. (A Giveaway: “300,000 products hint at promotion strategies for the 2015 holiday season” and a blog post, “Fewer promotions in store for holidays 2015”).

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be promotions built around the holidays, but the retailers are learning to get optimum prices at optimum times and helping (and hoping, based on science) that consumers learn to buy because of reasons other than a sale.

Phil Chang
BrainTrust
Phil Chang
Retail Influencer, Speaker and Consultant
9 months 2 days ago

Naomi, it’s a good insight. Retail has already been an art and a science. While data (big or anecdotal) has made retail more about science. The art is knowing that the consumer still enjoys getting a deal and feeling like they’ve “gotten away with one.” Retail is full of passion and emotion. That’s what makes us buy.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

I can see where the author of the report makes her point. After all, data can be used in many ways to say many different things. But Christmas and Channukah come in December, not July. For that reason alone, holiday sales will be slanted toward the holiday season and not evenly year-round. De-emphasizing the holiday season might work in some corners of the world. I do not see it happening here. I wonder what marketers and advertisers think of this?

Jasmine Glasheen
Staff

Black Friday is eroding in importance because it peaked in insanity about five years ago when people were knocking one another out over televisions and turkey basters.

I love Tom’s term “deal fatigue.” I’d attribute certain deal-based holiday’s lack of fanfare to deal fatigue — the constant inundation of red PERCENT OFF SIGNS and LAST CALL emails — rather than an ebb in consumer holiday spirit.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust

It’s definitely sensible for retailers to want to have strong sales year round. Relying on sales from a single month to make or break your year is risky no matter how you slice it. The holiday season is an important time for retail, and that will never change. But retailers should be diverse enough to handle a dip in holiday sales without going into the red. As we saw this year, Prime Day was a surprisingly large day for retail, and we won’t know to what extent it impacted holiday sales until the holiday season is over.

Manish Chowdhary
BrainTrust

We see that the holiday opportunity is declining, however the key quote from this article is: ” … 40 percent plan to shop in-store on Black Friday.” That is a colossal number of shoppers.

Is there any other day of the year that comes close? Why would a retailer want to miss out on that foot traffic, assuming that those shoppers include a retailer’s target segments?

The path to more evenly distributing sales over the course of the year is to sell something consumers need frequently regardless of season. AKA groceries. There is no other path.

Retailers should optimize for the holiday season — not de-emphasize it.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
9 months 2 days ago

We’re told this is the age when consumers are in control. And that means there will always be a holiday selling season as well as a spring yard season, Mother’s Day, back-to-school and more.

Of course retailers would love to have identical, highly-profitable sales every month of the year. But consumers aren’t going to be re-invented to make that happen.

The only valid question is whether retailers can reduce their dependence on the holiday feeding frenzy or reduce the degree to which they encourage it.

Sarah Nochimowski
Guest

Shopping during the holidays is part of the holidays! There is some retail therapy around it, why make it boring by planning more during the year?

Sky Rota
BrainTrust
9 months 2 days ago
We all love the holidays — I think I can speak for every generation. However things have changed and it’s Not just that the “wealthier ones,” are “used to buying the products they want when they want them.” Lots of things today are a necessity, not a luxury. Generation Zers are not the “put it on your Christmas/birthday list” generation. That’s a quote from my mom. Which we think is pretty absurd. Not because we are spoiled, it is out of necessity. If my sister’s laptop is pronounced dead on October 18th, she can’t wait to receive a new one for Christmas. She is in college and needs another one ASAP. Things that were ones considered gifts are now necessities. We are certainly not waiting until our birthdays to get another cell if ours breaks on a random day of the week. Our generation is also not waiting in any Black Friday lines. We will make purchases on what my parents now call “Black Monday.” They get all the best deals without walking out the… Read more »
Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

As much as I agree that it would be better to balance sales throughout the year, the holiday season is a fact of life and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

As for Black Friday, it has become less important in recent years — but it remains a $55 billion opportunity for retailers and last year 89.8 percent of that spend was made in physical stores.

Yoav Vilner
BrainTrust
9 months 2 days ago

One doesn’t necessarily need to exclude the other. Downplaying the holiday season is a mistake because it still brings a big impact on the overall sales, but that doesn’t mean that retailers should focus solely on that. I agree with Ms. Lee Yohn: data analytics is a valuable resource for retailers. Placing the right amount of importance on the holiday season while making good use of the data to analyze customers’ patterns is key to a successful sales strategy.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Rich and I have spent the wee hours of every Black Friday we can remember shivering in parking lots, talking with shoppers who are waiting in line for stores to open. They may be tired and cranky, but they’re anxious to save money and excited for the find. Like it or not, Black Friday has become a time honored tradition that many consumers look forward to, and plan for, all year long. They’ll stay home when it stops being exciting or the deals aren’t worth the wait. Until then let’s continue to make brick-and-mortar shopping fun, especially during the Golden Quarter holidays.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust

Georganne, happy to see you here! I agree — Black Friday (and let’s not forget Small Business Saturday) are a unique opportunity for brick-and-mortar retailers to take the attention away from e-commerce and bring people together by celebrating a fun tradition.

W. Frank Dell II
BrainTrust

All the comments are somewhat correct. First, Black Friday is a non-food retail industry idea indicating the point when the retailer stops operating in the red. This is not a consumer event and most have no idea what you are talking about when you say Black Friday. So January 2 through Thanksgiving they lose money and for the next five weeks make up for the loss and generate a profit. Many retailers went out of business following this business model. All you needed was a bad holiday to kill a company. Sam Walton best understood this was a failing idea with a model that made money every day.

Retailers should get off the Black Friday, internal-looking perspective and into the holiday by assisting consumers finding the right gift. Stop decorating the stores in August. After Halloween is fine. The online shoppers will continue to grow, but expect more Christmas club-type shoppers to balance the household cash flow.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

No, retailers and brands should not de-emphasize the holiday season. The holidays aren’t going away from any consumers’ minds, so why should we remove the focus? Shoppers still expect holiday promotions, so any efforts to the contrary will result in lost sales to those merchants that choose to continue the traditional promotional campaigns.

Peter Luff
BrainTrust

The holiday season would not be the holiday season without shopping. I haven’t read the HBR article yet and certainly wouldn’t want to appear disingenuous, but the thinking smacks of someone looking at retailing through an accountant’s lens. Yes, it may be logical, but boy would it make for a dull year. If there was any mileage in the argument, can you explain to me why Amazon has created Prime Day and Alibaba Singles’ Day?

Brian Kelly
Guest
9 months 2 days ago
Holiday is important because consumers buy stuff. (I can’t believe I am writing this.) Consumers buy stuff because the US is primarily a Christian nation. Not to say other faiths or non-believers do not celebrate the time of year. It is the gift giving time of year. For those of you who don’t remember, in most US homes, Christmas trees are bought and decorated, and gifts for all members of the family are placed beneath to be opened sometime between 12/24-25. Mother’s Day + Father’s Day do not equal Christmas sales volume because gifts are bought for the entire family. For most Americans with a HHI beneath $75K, living paycheck to paycheck is very real. The reason why Black Friday matters is retailers use the event to kick off the selling season. It never has been the biggest day of the year. Typically that day is the Saturday (Sunday, with fewer selling hours can be even more productive) before Christmas, when folks have time off, no religious obligations and have an open to spend because… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

With Xmas sales seemingly beginning in July, and a whole series of (often contrived) “events” throughout the year, it seems like it’s already “mission accomplished.” Beyond that, people buy based on their own needs. I’m not sure one should — or even can — try to force changes.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
While there are some good points in made in the article I think this is confusing multiple facets of pricing, sales, and product seasonality that in no way need to be mutually exclusive. Shoppers are trained to expect holiday sales and instinctively wait to make certain purchases during the holiday season — and that doesn’t even take into account gift purchases. This is completely counter to thinking customer-first — it’s more retailer-first in that it may make good accounting sense to kill the holiday shopping season and spread out sales during the entire year, but its in no way what customers are expecting. The holiday shopping season shouldn’t be treated as something retailers are in control of any more than they are in control of how and when consumers shop! The season is something controlled by shoppers and if retailers want to eliminate store sales for the holiday season, then they may be eliminating some of their best customers in the process. Becoming customer-centric means adapting your business to how your customers will buy. That… Read more »
Min-Jee Hwang
BrainTrust

The holiday season will always be primetime for retail, but the proper approach needs to be rethought. Online shopping has, without a doubt, changed how we shop during the holidays. Waking up at 4 am the day after Thanksgiving to get into our freezing cars isn’t exactly appealing when we could check out from our couches instead. The holiday promotional calendar is wider than it used to be and that’s ok. Retailers need to focus on multiple touch points, instead of the antiquated way of thinking that one or two days will be the litmus test for success over a two (or more!) month period. Smart retailers will do their homework to find out what shoppers want (in terms of experience, pricing, and assortment), when they want it, and provide that every time. Flexibility is key to stability.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust
Shopping, in general, has changed. Consumers’ shopping habits have changed. What have retailers done to acknowledge the change except set up Christmas decorations and items earlier as well as try to outcompete each other on Black Friday activities? Here are some questions for retailers: 1. How many customers buy gifts early to send them overseas or to have time to get them in the mail early? 2. How many consumers do all their shopping online because they refuse to enter stores in the Christmas rush when it is hard to find a parking space and there are crowds? 3. What can you do to make the holiday shopping a pleasant experience for consumers? 4. What can you do to make “gifts” available and/or on sale before the traditional Christmas shopping season without getting everything decorated and labeled Christmas? There are lots of reasons for purchasing gifts throughout the year so retailers could still have a holiday season shopping period if they can make coming to the stores enticing and fun. Selling “gifts” is a year… Read more »
Denise Yohn
Guest
9 months 2 days ago

Thanks to everyone for all the great insights and comments — and to Tom Ryan for getting the conversation started. It seems most of you advocate for a more balanced approach (holiday AND year-round) — as do I, as I hope my article (not the headline makes clear.) It’s funny — I had originally entitled my piece “Stop the Holiday Shopping Season Madness,” in an attempt to suggest that saner approach was needed. My HBR editor changed the headline to its current version “Why Retailers Should Retire Holiday Shopping Season” perhaps in part because she knew a more provocative headline would attract more readers! Thanks again. — Denise

Dave Brewer
Guest
I wouldn’t! If retailers could smooth out their sales across the year, they would reap immense value from this (consistent staffing, consistent distribution chain, etc.) However, retail is not smooth, it is cyclical, weather driven, and most of all, event and holiday driven. Retailers have been trying to build up their traffic and sales outside of the holiday season for decades. So much so, that for most retailers, their marketing and promotional calendars are leveraged with campaigns almost every single day. While there can be smaller moves and plays to perhaps deleverage some holiday marketing spend into other times of the year, it still remains that the value driven by delivering during the holiday is much more exponential that it is during any other time of the year. The two keys to retailers maintaining and increasing comps outside of holiday are experience and product: Providing an experience (in-store and online) that drives the customer to visit and showcasing great differentiated product can support a retailer to many strength outside of holiday. Christmas in July is… Read more »
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Braintrust
"Talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water. The holiday season is a real thing."
"Sam Walton best understood this was a failing idea with a model that made money every day."
"Retailers should optimize for the holiday season — not de-emphasize it."

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