In late October, Jerry Stritzke, the C.E.O. of the outdoor-gear store R.E.I., appeared in a video posted to YouTube. He’s sitting at a desk, and behind him some bookshelves are decorated with bland office paraphernalia: framed photos, tchotchkes, an orchid. “This Black Friday, we’re closing all one hundred and forty-three of our stores,” Stritzke says; employees, he reassures viewers, will still be paid. As he explains the reasoning (“We’d rather be in the mountains than in the aisles”), the camera pans out to show that his desk sits not in an office but on a bluff, with mountains rising in the background. The video has since gone viral, with more than five hundred thousand views, and the Black Friday closure was seen as so unorthodox—and welcome—that it made national headlines. On the Forbes Web site, a blogger raved “Kudos to REI,” calling the decision a message that “success isn’t just about money.” In USA Today, another journalist wrote, “REI is taking direct aim at the frenzied consumerism that dominates the holidays with a message to do the exact opposite of what Black Friday demands.”
In the past couple of years, it must be said, retailers have tended to take a determinedly pro-frenzied-consumerism approach to Black Friday, beginning their sales earlier and earlier, so that they have eventually impinged on Thanksgiving Day. The phenomenon became so pervasive that it even got a name, Black Friday Creep. Walmart, the standard-bearer in Black Friday Creep, began its holiday sales on Thanksgiving Day for the first time in 2011, a time when the idea of abandoning the dining table for the mall still seemed transgressive. That year, Black Friday at Walmart began at 10 P.M. on Thursday. The following year, it shifted to 8 P.M. And the year after that, it moved to 6 P.M. By that time, other retailers had caught on to the Thanksgiving Day opening; Macy’s started its sales on Thanksgiving for the first time in 2013. By last year, Best Buy had moved its own opening time for holiday sales to 5 P.M. on Thanksgiving—even earlier than Walmart. The creep crept on.
But R.E.I.’s statement this year is actually part of what appears to be a slowdown in the creep. Best Buy has held fast to 5 P.M. on Thanksgiving, and Walmart has stuck with 6 P.M. While a Black Friday closure is unorthodox, other retailers are at least declining to open on Thanksgiving; GameStop will open at 5 A.M. on Friday, five hours later than last year, and Staples will open at 6 A.M. on Friday, after opening last year on Thanksgiving itself. There might seem to be something renegade, even anti-capitalist, about this, but there’s a business impulse at work: an attempt to survive as more people replace visits to the mall with visits to retail Web sites. When online shopping started to gain appeal over the offline version, retailers thought it would be smart to draw holiday shoppers into stores—instead of onto the Internet, or at least in addition to it—by using gimmicks like the earlier (and earlier and earlier) holiday-season sales.
But Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales can be as punishing for retailers as they are for shoppers, between paying employees overtime (or facing P.R. backlashes if they don’t) and having to sell “door-buster” deals at steep discounts to draw people in. This year, it seems, some brick-and-mortar retailers have begun to feel that whatever benefit they get from early openings isn’t worth the trouble. The National Retail Federation, a trade group, found in a survey that forty-six per cent of holiday shopping is expected to take place online—up from forty-four per cent last year—the highest figure since the organization started tracking it in 2006. Over all, throughout the year, retail revenue is still much higher offline than online, but the gap is shrinking.
The purpose of Black Friday is partly to get people to buy your stuff—but it’s also meant to have marketing value, to sell the image of your store as a place where people want to shop year round. In the past, Black Friday was seen as a fun, weirdly exciting event; even when people got injured in the rush, it conferred a kind of cachet (O.K., well, that must have been a real bargain). But the widespread availability of good deals on the Internet has diminished the appeal of all that sales-bin arm wrestling—and, in fact, has made it seem a bit unsavory.
Oliver Chen, a retail analyst at Cowen & Co., told me that shoppers have started to get irritated, rather than tantalized, when they can’t find an in-store deal that had been advertised. If that happens, the deal becomes an advertisement not for the retailer but for Amazon, which has as much as we want of whatever we want whenever we want it. It also means, of course, that retailers miss out on potential sales. So this year, Chen said, many retailers are focussing less on the gimmicks than on just making sure they have enough of the products they’ve put on sale. That way, people who visit a store on Thanksgiving or Black Friday will have a good time, which might make them likelier to come back at other times of the year. Retailers have come to see it as increasingly important, generally, to make sure that shoppers have a good experience in their stores; given that e-commerce tends to be more convenient than in-store shopping, people need better reasons than before to visit shops.
That change in thinking might go some distance toward explaining R.E.I.’s Black Friday closure. R.E.I. is especially interested in consumer loyalty. It sells special memberships, in which shoppers get discounts as well as a share of the company’s profits; the company gets some revenue from the memberships, but, more important, they give people a reason to return to the store. In fact, in a Reddit ask-me-anything conversation after the Black Friday closure was announced, many R.E.I. workers, instead of thanking their boss for the day off, skewered the company, arguing that the store puts too much pressure on them to sell memberships and penalizing those who don’t do well enough at it, even if they’re good salespeople in other respects.
R.E.I. is not only closing stores; it’s also discouraging shoppers online. Anyone who visits its Web site on Black Friday will be greeted with a black screen with the hashtag #OptOutside. That part of its plan seems to be counterintuitive—perhaps a calculation that the value to its brand of emphasizing the use of its outdoor gear outweighs the value of sales in its stores or online. Elsewhere in the retail industry, brick-and-mortar stores are becoming much more aggressive online, including during the holidays. In the past, retailers would save certain deals for their brick-and-mortar stores, not making them available online. The stores didn’t want their Web sites to cannibalize their considerable offline sales, and they wanted to persuade people to come into shops instead of going online—not unlike a newspaper publisher of the early two-thousands holding onto a scoop for the morning edition instead of publishing it online. But this year, Walmart is making ninety-six per cent of its in-store deals available online, up from ninety per cent last year. It seems inevitable that that number will soon increase to a hundred per cent, as Walmart and other retailers find that, if they don’t cannibalize themselves, Amazon will continue to feast.
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