The End of Black Friday?

What social data can tell us about the future of holiday shopping

Although it can trace its origins in some form back more than seven decades, Black Friday didn’t really become the “Super Bowl of shopping” until the 1980s.
Around that time, retailers started opening early on the day after Thanksgiving and heavily promoting sale items in the hopes of jumpstarting the holiday shopping season. Consumers quickly came on board and, before long, the fourth Friday of November morphed into what we now know it as: a hectic day of heavily promoted in-store sales attracting crowds hungrily looking for the best deals.
Or, at least, that’s what it has been. In recent years, Black Friday’s retail dominance has come under threat. Sales are down more than $1 billion. Online shopping is thinning Black Friday’s crowds. Major retailers are opting out of Black Friday in a gentle rebuke to rampant consumption.
In short, Black Friday has the blues, and no one can really agree why.

What’s causing Black Friday’s decline?

There is no shortage of point-of-sale data or national spending figures signaling the waning dominance of Black Friday, but this data is really the symptom not the cause of the Black Friday blues. To understand why sales are dropping, we need to go inside the minds of consumers and identify the reasons they are choosing to talk (or not) about and participate (or not) in the Black Friday experience.
Luckily there is a way to do just that. Social data can tell us not only how much people are engaging with Black Friday, but also the emotions behind the conversation.
We analyzed the social conversation surrounding Black Friday between 2010 and 2015 in an effort to determine how consumers feel about Black Friday, how their opinions have evolved, and what it means for the future of the holiday shopping season.

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Ultimately the data provided three potential explanations for the Black Friday doldrums:

  • Black Friday has lost its shine
  • Younger consumers are less interested in traditional shopping experiences
  • eCommerce is undermining the Black Friday conversation

Let’s take them one by one.

Black Friday has lost its shine

The popularity of Black Friday has long been tied to the perceived value of the sales and specific deals. But, in recent years, this has been counterbalanced by the rise of more negative Black Friday perceptions like overcrowded stores and the negative effect of Black Friday on retail employees.

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Social media data provides a lens to inspect this declining in popularity.

When we used Crimson Hexagon to study the sentiment around Black Friday conversation, we found that it has been steadily declining since 2010.

In 2010, more than half of all posts about Black Friday were categorized as positive and only 20% were deemed negative. By 2015, those sentiments had almost completely flipped: almost 40% of all posts are negative, and only are 30% are positive.

What was once a day of consumer enthusiasm for great bargains and once-a-year events has gradually morphed into a discussion about the overwhelming nature and dubious deals of Black Friday shopping.

 

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It’s certainly true that not all of the social conversation about Black Friday is negatively tinged, but there is no doubt that sentiment is changing. Social posts about Black Friday are now more likely to focus on the negative aspects of Black Friday shopping, especially in-store shopping.

But declining sentiment may itself be symptom of a larger shift in consumers’ thoughts about Black Friday. What else could be driving this dwindling perception?

Younger consumers are less interested in traditional shopping experiences

When we dug into the demographics of the Black Friday conversation, we found that the share of millennials participating has grown significantly in the last five years.

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In 2010, less than a quarter of the people participating in the conversation were under 25. By 2015, that number grew to nearly 60%

When taken in concert with the findings around the increasingly negative sentiment, the larger picture begins to come into focus: the Black Friday audience is becoming younger, and the conversation is increasingly emphasizing the negative aspects of the event.

Indeed, when we divide the overall audience into two groups based on age — under 25 and 25 and over — we see that the younger audience more frequently expresses frustration and uses words like “sad,” “worst” and “mad” while the older audience sticks to the more traditional concepts like “tradition,” “bargain” and “purchase.”

The older audience that popularized Black Friday (at least on social) is slowly giving way to a younger, more skeptical demographic.

And there’s an important factor that’s accelerating that push.

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eCommerce is undermining the Black Friday conversation

The last five years have seen the rapid growth of online shopping. It is not surprising, then, that traditional Black Friday shopping has taken a hit. Why would consumers rush to physical stores with long lines when they could order the same items for (typically) the same prices from the comfort of their own home?

The answer is that, increasingly, they won’t. When we divided the overall Black Friday conversation into two groups — conversations about Black Friday shopping in stores and conversations about Black Friday shopping online — we found that online Black Friday shopping is quickly overtaking in-store shopping.

In fact, when we created a conservative linear model for the two parts of the conversation, it projects that Black Friday conversation focused on online shopping will surpass in-store conversation by 2020.

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Conclusion: What’s next for Black Friday

Taken in total, these three findings paint a somewhat bleak picture for the future of Black Friday: The social conversation about Black Friday is drying up, becoming more negative, dominated by millennials, and increasingly focused on online shopping.

Does this mean that Black Friday is on its last legs? Well, yes and no. Conversation around Black Friday is still fairly high and the weekend still retains cultural and economic relevance. But, Black Friday is undeniably evolving. What started as a single-day event centered around big-ticket items and in-store shopping is quickly becoming something different — it is becoming a more diffuse, online-oriented kickoff to the holiday shopping period. Retailers are increasingly starting promotions earlier, making prices consistent across online and brick-and-mortar channels, and focusing on a younger demographic that is less interested in the traditional shopping experience.

Understanding these trends might not save Black Friday, but it could smooth the transition between an outdated model and a new approach to jumpstarting the holiday shopping season.

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