Initial thoughts on Black Friday

You can see my previous holiday expectations and analysis here:

Holiday 2012: Part I
Holiday 2012: Part II
Holiday 2012: Part III
Holiday 2012: Part IV
Holiday 2012: Part V
Holiday 2012: Part VI
Holiday 2012: Part VII
Holiday 2012: Part VIII
Holiday 2012: Part IX

Here are my initial thoughts on today’s (and really last night’s) Black Friday openings.  Last night I visited a BestBuy, ToysRUs, Staples, Office Max, Target, and two different Walmart stores over the first 12 hours of store openings. Lines both outside and within the stores were as bad as I’ve ever seen them. As I mentioned yesterday, shoppers were queuing outside starting as early as early Wednesday afternoon. BestBuy’s line last night wrapped around the entire building.  I’m not sure I’ve seen the lines ever extend that far.  There were likely some 750 shoppers in line. There was still a line outside a full hour after they opened the doors as shoppers continued to file into the store. ToysRUs and Target showed equally long lines at their respective open.  The first Walmart I visited is open 24/7 so the crowds had already filled the store by their first open (8PM) and only grew larger for their second open (10PM). I wasn’t able to make it to a Sears, but was told they also had longer lines than in the past.  Sears had some very well-priced doorbuster items including a 50″ HDTV at $300 so I wasn’t surprised by these reports.

The office supply stores continue to hold to their 5AM opens and they had crowds consistent or perhaps slightly larger than they experienced the last two or three years.  My personal impressions are that the office supply stores garnered larger crowds several years ago when Black Friday was less pronounced and they were some of the earliest stores to open.  It was also the era of “free” doorbusters and the office supply stores frequently offered several items that were free with rebate.  All-and-all, my own impressions and the reports I’m tracking from other markets suggest overall traffic was up from last year.

The traffic in 2012 did follow a slightly different pattern – the opens had the largest crowds (as usual), but there were still “crowds” throughout other windows of the evening and morning.  This year, the opens were probably larger than last year and the traffic trailed more quickly.  But I still think overall traffic this year was higher with more shoppers braving the stores.  CEA will publish research tomorrow that will either confirm or counter this.

Earlier this fall I predicted retailers would offer unique promotions in several windows as opposed to a single doorbuster period. In 2012, several retailers adopted that strategy. Walmart even had three circulars this year – one for each of their “opens.” I checked a Walmart at 5AM for their third doorbuster release of the morning. The store was nowhere near as crowded as it was at their 8PM or 10pm promotion releases, but the store still had lines for some items (including the TV offer). I rechecked a BestBuy at around 7AM and the store still had good traffic. The parking lot was nearly full and it appeared traffic would hold through at least the morning. While the biggest doorbusters were gone within minutes, there was still inventory for many of the Black Friday promotions.

My friends Ben Arnold and Steve Baker over at NPD have written their thoughts on Black Friday (see here and here). Baker suggests consumers aren’t interested in this additional timed promotions. My experience in the store isn’t consistent with that story. But I do think that it is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to manage the plethora of timed offers both in-store and online.

As far as products/devices go,  tablets did extremely well as we expected. TVs also appear to have done very well – especially inexpensive ones. There seemed to be good demand across the full spectrum of screen sizes. Apple products were heavy favorites everywhere I checked. Laptops were heavily promoted and they seem to have done pretty well across a number of retailers. DSLR also showed some strength.  I agree with Ben’s assessment – consumers were passing audio generally even though headphones like Beats by Dre were slightly discounted and are high on holiday wishlists.  But I also think the inventory was strong for many of these categories so consumers might be coming back today or tomorrow for them. Consumers might also be looking toward CyberMonday or other online promotions.