Black Friday prices aren’t all they’re cracked up to be

A key retail storyline for years now has been the increasing power of the consumer.

Shoppers have the ability to compare prices and inventory online. They showroom and webroom, set price alerts and take retailers up on offers to match priceshold online orders for pickup at a brick-and-mortar store or deliver the goods the very next day.

And this holiday shopping season, consumers will be able to go shopping with the machine. The Wall Street Journal is running a real-time experiment with something it calls the Christmas Sale Tracker, unveiled in a story with a print version headline, “Snagging the Holiday Deals.”

The sale tracker is pretty nifty, crunching price changes and inventory status every hour on 10 popular products — Razor scooter, NutriBullet blender, KitchenAid mixer etc. — at several big retailers, such as Walmart, Kohl’s, Target, Amazon, Sears, Staples and others. The big data project and the reporting of Journal staffers led the news organization to conclude that despite the hype, Black Friday is not necessarily the best day for shoppers to get the best deals on holiday gifts.

In fact, the weeks leading up to Black Friday (that would be now) appeared to be the time to find the best prices, which, depending on the item, fluctuated frequently.

“Last month, Amazon featured the Jawbone Up24 for as little as $110.05 and as much as $129, changing prices 20 times during October alone,” the Journal story reported. “The price of the Jawbone Up24 bounced up and down nearly a dozen times between $108.86 to $124.31 on Walmart’s website. At Sears, a unit of Sears Holdings Corp., the price went from $124.10 up to $142, and then to $149 every Tuesday and Friday morning before reverting back to $124.10 for the rest of the week.”

The newspaper saw the movements as an attempt by retailers to get a handle on the precise effects of various price changes.

As a practical matter, the tracker’s usefulness to consumers is limited, especially if they’re not interested in purchasing any of the 10 items tracked. But the experiment is yet another sign of how much and how quickly the retail game is changing.

A rapid evolution is underway, which is arming consumers with ever-more-powerful tools. Pricing has become transparent and information about the availability of products is becoming easier to access. No doubt, more comprehensive one-stop price checkers, like the Christmas Sale Tracker, are on the way. On the flip side, retailers need to continuously bolster the technology and tools they use to track prices, inventory, consumer trends and personal preferences of individual consumers.

The new commerce frontier requires the marriage of the smartest marketers and the most powerful machines to keep a competitive edge. And it requires a relentless focus on e-commerce, which is growing robustly while in-store traffic declines. The National Retail Federation predicts that online sales will increase by as much as 11 percent this holiday season, while e-commerce and in-store revenue combined, will grow about 4 percent.

The amount of available data on consumer preferences, inventory, price-sensitivity and the like is making for a more sophisticated relationship between consumers and retailers.

The lower pre-Black Friday prices are, in part, a move by retailers to get consumers to order earlier in the season. Last year, both UPS and FedEx were overwhelmed by e-commerce packages in the days leading up to Christmas. A late Thanksgiving made for a shorter shopping season and it’s reasonable to assume that some consumers were holding off until holiday ordering deadlines in hopes they’d see lower prices.

Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru referred to the resulting shipping backlog as the “capacity constraint Q4.” She pointed out that during the 17 days leading up to Christmas, the number of packages shipped averaged 46 million a day, compared to about seven million a day for the rest of the year.

Despite the window into pricing provided by the Christmas Sale Tracker, it’s still a safe bet that the number of packages moving this holiday season will surpass last year’s number. FedEx already has said that it expects to a 9-percent increase in the number of packages it moves this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. And UPS has said it expects an 11 percent increase in packages this December compared to last December.


Photo of keyboard by infocux Technologies published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.


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