Was Black Friday a bust?

Photo: RetailWire
Nov 30, 2020

Those long contending Black Friday is no longer relevant certainly have a strong argument this year.

In-store traffic on Black Friday collapsed 52.1 percent year-over-year, according to Sensormatic Solutions. A steep decline was expected as a second wave of COVID cases raged across the country to keep shoppers at home. Stores in Los Angeles County were forced to limit occupancy to 25 percent. Most retailers closed their stores on Thanksgiving to give their workers a break and offered fewer in-store doorbusters when they opened their doors around dawn on Friday.

“There’s definitely a pretty clear feeling that you don’t need to be out today,” Joseph Feldman, senior managing director at Telsey Advisory Group, told NBC News, about Black Friday. “I think that was by design. Retailers didn’t want to create a frenzy.”

In-store traffic was also watered down by the release of holiday deals as early as the first week of October. Retailers have gone online with many of their doorbuster-type deals.

Online spending on Black Friday jumped 22 percent from a year ago, according to Adobe Analytics, which measures 80 of the top 100 U.S. e-commerce sites. The growth was on the low end of Adobe’s forecasted range, although it still marked the second best online sales day ever after 2019’s Cyber Monday.

Was Black Friday a bust?
Photo: Retailwire

“What we’re seeing this year is $1 out of every $4 this season is being spent online. And that’s a marked increase from last year when it was about $1 out of every $5,” Adobe’s senior digital insights manager Vivek Pandya told CNN Business. “That’s additional billions of dollars that are being migrated online. And that’s being done in a very short period of time because of the pandemic.”

The growing trend during the pandemic toward the use of pickup services — curbside and in-store — continued, with a 52 percent year-over-year increase on Black Friday, Adobe said.

Amazon, Walmart and Target are expected to continue to benefit from one-stop shopping convenience, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Journal reported, however, that it’s still uncertain whether the early deals, accelerated online growth and an expected record Cyber Monday “will be enough to offset the money lost from in-person shopping for many chains.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Was Black Friday a success, a disappointment or something in between? What holiday insights did the Black Friday experience offer about this year’s holiday season and those to come in the future?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Retailers and customers alike are adapting. That’s a success story."
"The number of Black Five-Day sales I’ve seen this year aren’t surprising and frankly a smart way to avoid frenzy both in-store and online during a pandemic."
"This is truly a new normal, so integrated omnichannel experiences will be the name of the game and critical for success going forward."

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36 Comments on "Was Black Friday a bust?"

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Mark Ryski

Black Friday itself was a bust as virtually everyone predicted, but let’s not forget that Black Friday promotions have been going on all month. Also, when you combine the extended sales period with the significant increase in online buying, I expect that the final tally on this year’s holiday season will be better than the mall traffic trends indicate. Yes, mall traffic was down, how could it not be?

And while some firms like Sensormatic (formally referred to as ShopperTrak), claim that store traffic was down 52 percent on Black Friday, it’s important to realize that this is largely a mall-skewed data sample and as such is not reflective of the retail market as a whole. I suspect that off-mall retailers like Target and Walmart didn’t experience the same traffic declines seen by mall-based retailers. Lastly, traffic is only part of the equation. The bigger question is what happened to in-store conversion rates? While traffic was down dramatically, I suspect that conversion rates were up significantly – which will offset some of the traffic decline.

Jeff Sward

Good point about conversion rates! And ditto for basket size.


Mark, absolutely spot on with your comment about Sensormatic traffic information. So many retailers have moved to other systems that are tracking traffic, as well as the retailers outside of the mall concepts, as you mentioned.

Let’s also remember that Black Friday has been losing its “spark” over the past several years due to Amazon’s Prime Day, Lightning Deals, Retailers opening up deals prior to Black Friday, and the concept of BOPIS that has now taken a stronger hold. Overall the amount of access to data and deals is tremendous and going out to shop on one day isn’t really any longer exciting like it use to be.

The future will bring customers back into the retailers but they will be shopping with a different purpose than to just grab a deal, they will be able to get the deals on line, and in store shopping will be about the “experiences.”

Larry Negrich

The strategy of running multiple holiday promotions to compensate for smaller in-store crowds seems to be working. With the headwinds currently facing retailers, a blockbuster Black Friday was never in the offing. I’m not sure that the 2020 holiday season will give much indication of actions retailers should take in future years.

Jeff Sward

Black Friday was a success, and not by any traffic metric, but by the fact that the show went on and it went on in a safe and sane manner. With promotions starting in October and with the cloud of COVID-19, there can be no surprise about the diminished level of traffic. The spirit of holiday shopping lives on. The spirit of Black Friday deals lives on. Retailers and customers alike are adapting. That’s a success story.

Gary Sankary

I think it’s too early to tell. Black Friday was diluted this year, responsible retailers spread out deals and worked on reducing crowds on Friday morning. A better metric will be to look at all of November (which includes today, Cyber Monday) and compare total sales YOY to gauge early season shopping.

Neil Saunders

Physical shopping on the day itself was very, very muted. However, given we are in the middle of a pandemic, this is not surprising. Online trade on the day itself rose strongly, but it did not completely offset the decline from physical stores.

However you cannot measure the overall success of Black Friday by looking at just one day. Black Friday is now an event that is spread over many days, especially this year as retailers started deals back in October. When this longer view is factored in, there will be some growth over last year.

Provided the pandemic is over, I think the actual day of Black Friday will come back next year. However the genie is now out of the bottle and we should get used to a much longer promotional period in the years ahead.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
1 year 8 hours ago

Black Friday itself being a bust is not a surprise. A lot of retailers began holiday/pre-Black Friday sales in October to offset the expected decline in the brick-and-mortar business. But the small bright spot was major increases in BOPIS and online shopping/delivery. I expect these to continue to grow until the pandemic is under control and perhaps continue to grow after it is all over.

Cathy Hotka

In-store traffic isn’t the big story this year — online sales are. Many retailers rewarded customers with amazing deals (Old Navy slashed every price by 50 percent). Things aren’t worse this year, they’re different.

Paula Rosenblum

Was Black Friday a bust? It depends on your definition and understanding of Black Friday. If you’re referring to the massive doorbuster sales and accompanying extra payroll, and HVAC costs, sure, it was a bust. But I’m old enough to remember when Black Friday was just the kickoff to the holiday season, when families would go out shopping or looking at store windows (unless there had been a light snow the day before — then boom!).

The real question is not “Was Black Friday a bust?” or even “What percent was sold online?” The real question is “What is the holiday season going to look like for retailers?” I think it’s going to be a story of heaven and hell, depending on the retail segment. But one way or another, without those store-based I-dont-know-whats it will likely be more profitable than it would have been if Black Friday was a “boom.”

If it was a bust, I say good riddance.

Dick Seesel

I haven’t done the math, but it’s no surprise if Friday mall traffic was indeed down 50 percent while online shopping was up 20 percent. Retailers made the deliberate (and responsible) choice to spread out their “Black Friday” promotions and to reduce traffic jams in the middle of a pandemic. So that’s hardly a bust based on lowered expectations.

Whether this plays out by the end of the holiday season with the 3.7 percent increase projected by the NRF remains to be seen. The NRF wears rose-colored glasses under the best of circumstances, and nobody has seen a situation like this with so many stores closed or disrupted. If consumer spending is able to break even this year, it should be considered a triumph of logistics management — and a testament to the central role of e-commerce.

Steve Dennis

Certainly if we want to isolate our focus on year-over-year performance in-store, it was a bust. Unsurprisingly, store traffic was way down and, from where I sit, online sales were relatively anemic when you consider that pre-COVID you’d expect increases in the 15 percent range. Given concerns about fighting the crowds, and from the overall recent acceleration of e-commerce, I would have thought year-over-year sales would be up in the 30 percent – 40 percent range and instead they came in well below that according to most sources. The big takeaway, though, is that being hyper-focused on any one day is useless, as is worrying too much about online vs. brick-and-mortar. With early promotions the only way to dissect the season is to take a multi-week view.

Oliver Guy

Five or so years ago Black Friday did not exist in the U.K. Since then things have changed dramatically. Early years saw system outages and fulfillment issues and as time went on retailers extended the time scale to be “Black Friday Weekend.” However this year some (including Amazon) started their offers a week before actual Black Friday (and offers still stand). Why did they start so early? Well, one reason could be to spread the demand over a longer period – but equally likely is the desire to capture consumer Christmas shopping budgets before their competitors do.

Ralph Jacobson

Times are changing and with so many Cyber Monday sales beginning over the long weekend, it’s simply too convenient to shop for everything online rather than risking infection in physical stores at this time. We’ll see what happens next year.

Georganne Bender

Is anyone really surprised that Black Friday was different this year? That more people shopped online than they did in-store? Of course Black Friday was watered down this year, it had to be when that one big day became a season that started in October.

But the one big day was still a big deal where I live. You couldn’t get a parking space at our local town center and the lines to get into the store and curbside pickup at Best Buy were long. Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois was packed with masked shoppers.

No doubt those month long Black Friday sales worked, and I am anxious to read the final numbers, but one thing we can’t forget is that consumers like Black Friday, the day. They wait for it and plan for it and even during a pandemic were willing to carry on that Thanksgiving weekend tradition. Next year will require a complete new reinvention of what Black Friday means and how to make it work.

Ricardo Belmar
Black Friday 2020 set new online shopping records which at a minimum makes it continued success for retail given we are in the middle of a pandemic. In-store traffic was down, and RetailNext reported their data showed a 48 percent drop, in line with Sensormatic – but that was expected. Many locations have capacity constraints, and the fact is many consumers are trying to heed health officials’ warnings about large gatherings and avoiding stores – especially mall-based stores which are heavily represented in these foot traffic data points. As others have already pointed out, one would want to look at conversion data from those in-store shoppers and basket sizes – both of which I suspect were up if consumers made the effort to shop in-store. The bottom line is retailers that started the pandemic well-positioned for omnichannel sales, implemented curbside pickup and in-store pickup, bolstered their online infrastructure and shipping capacity, and started their holiday sales promotions early this year in October were all going to do well from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. Cyber… Read more »
Rich Kizer

We all knew that foot traffic was going to be off because of the nerves and fears of roving among COVID-19 crowds. I couldn’t go out and get breakfast Friday, but I had the opportunity to get lost in semi-crowded stores. Crowd fear. What I saw was spectacular; my car counts in parking lots and at curbs was as high as I have seen. Were shoppers waiting to get to the curb, or find that parking space? I think “COVID-19 emotion” — that driving force that everyone has had to get out and get on with doing something — had people coming out to get some air and maybe a bargain. I was one of them.

Ken Morris

I believe it is somewhere in between. Online sales skyrocketed on Black Friday which is what we expected to make up for most of the shortfall of in-store shopping and will continue today and throughout the week. People will still be spending this holiday season to relieve the boredom and to show their appreciation for those they love.

Gene Detroyer

Actually, the fact that shopping in stores was down 52 percent is a positive for retailers. I would have expected it to be down more.

But today’s and the future reality is that the one Back Friday day will no longer exist. Oh, the sales may be called “Black Friday,” but pre- and post- sales have made “Black Friday” 10 days long or more.

Once there was an urgency in Black Friday. No more.

Lee Peterson

Black Friday, malls, rollercoasters in malls, parking in snowy parking lots: all gone. I can shop for “Black Friday” deals for months, but why would I do that rather than staying with my family and having a nice walk in the woods? It only makes sense from the perspective of nostalgia — even then, my kids have no idea what I’m talking about re: “the good old days.”

Having said that, the dot-com numbers continue to be strong as Americans are very keen on doing things they “normally” do (see football, travel for Thanksgiving, shopping) but are OK with doing it in a new way, and that includes online shopping. So I’d look for a pretty good holiday and leave the ancient Black Friday idea in the rear view mirror, where it belongs. Here’s to the new Santa!

Gene Detroyer

Exactly. I can shop for “Black Friday” deals for months, but why would I do that rather than staying with my family and having a nice walk in the woods?

Bob Phibbs

The news stories today are a bit like saying, “John Denver hasn’t had a hit record in a long time. Of course, he’s dead.” Of course in-person shopping was off. We’re in a pandemic. The real bright spot seems to have been small business Saturday where retailers are reporting record interest and sales.