Business Columns & Blogs

Earlier launch of holiday sales is just one piece of retail puzzle

One of the great challenges in writing satire these days is finding that sweet spot between outrageous exaggeration and reality.

The gap narrows every year. Between the moment we in the punditry business hit the “send” button to deliver our latest bit of commentary, leavened with just the right amount of hyperbole to make a point yet keep it credible, and the moment it’s translated into ink or electrons for public consumption, the real world has overtaken it, transforming prognostication into history (and understated history at that).

So, as we near another Thanksgiving and another launch to another holiday shopping season, we continue to search for the right phrasing with which to discuss the ever-earlier opening of stores.

The hands of the clock were long ago turned back far beyond the pre-dawn opening on the day-after-Thanksgiving. More retailers have announced they’re opening on Thanksgiving Day, and doing so earlier; first it was midnight, then in the evening, now late afternoon.

And after that — where? That’s the problem. It is tempting to write that eventually stores will roll right through Thanksgiving Day itself (in reverse), blow past Halloween and be headed toward Labor Day as the kickoff of the holiday retailing season, causing some confusion as to which holiday it is that shoppers are lining up for pre-holiday deals.

But maybe the trend will prove to be a fad, and not just for the reasons we’ve discussed in the past — the cannibalization effect of those promotions on sales, the effect on margins when shoppers buy the loss leaders and screaming deals but not the regularly priced stuff, the attendant higher costs of staying open longer.

Playing around with the launch of holiday sales is but one piece of a larger puzzle for retailers these days. They keep trying things, even those that might once have seemed outrageous (such as opening on Thanksgiving) because they haven’t figured out yet what the shopper wants. And they haven’t figured it out because the shoppers themselves haven’t figured out what they want.

In the full-disclosure, potential conflict-of-interest department, it needs to be noted here your columnist and his wife are now co-owners of a small bricks-and-mortar retail business, so we have more than a passing interest in these issues. For the record, we will be spending Thanksgiving at home eating and relaxing, and opening Friday at a regular, sane hour.

The confusion stems from the radical transformation of retailing by the Internet; this may be, apart from media (as we know all too painfully), the industry that has been most dramatically affected by online commerce and technology.

Shoppers now have a dizzying array of options and channels, not to mention a greatly expanded universe of merchandise selection, through which to make purchases. Confronted with these choices, and asked if they prefer to shop whenever they like via online or at physical stores where they can see the merchandise for themselves, the shoppers’ response has been, “Yes.”

And so the dueling strategies and experiments continue. Online retailers combine mobile technology with their own sites to let shoppers make instant price comparisons while on the premises of physical retailers, a practice known as “showrooming.” The physical retailers decry the practice, then begin working up tactics to counter the trend and make the sale. Online retailers try to shorten delivery times, as evidenced by the recent agreement between Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service for Sunday package delivery.

Further disclosures: As an independent retailer I’m supposed to be indignant about the Amazon-USPS deal. But as a taxpayer and a user of the postal service who would like to maintain service while keeping rate increases in check, if the arrangement is priced so that the USPS reduces its losses, and it’s available to other retailers with volumes to justify the cost, go for it.

There’s a lot of market share of consumer dollars up for grabs, so the competitive nature of this continual one-upsmanship will continue. Some of these innovations will prove to be of dubious benefit and thus short-lived. Others will prove to be what shoppers like and respond to, and will stick around until the competition comes up with a way to top it. It’s still not clear which category the earlier and earlier launch to the Christmas retailing season will fall into; it could even wind up proving to be a little of both.

While this will put more pressure on retail employees and managers and investors in the business, shoppers stand to be the beneficiary, at least when it comes to choice, convenience and price. They may not even have to forego Thanksgiving dinner — or is it the Labor Day cookout? — to reap those benefits.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at