Anne Gregory, MBA Class of 2017 and Keith Riegert, Langone Managing Editor
This year, the high-end outdoors retailer, REI (Recreation Equipment Inc.), is taking a novel approach to consumerism’s biggest holiday, Black Friday. REI is going dark. Instead of partaking in the deals day, REI, whose sales topped $2.2 billion in 2014, is giving Black Friday the cold shoulder with OptOutside—paying its 12,000 staff members to take the day off and enjoy the great outdoors. According to REI’s press release, President and CEO, Jerry Stritzke says, “Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the essential truth that life is richer, more connected and complete when you choose to spend it outside. We’re closing our doors, paying our employees to get out there, and inviting America to OptOutside with us because we love great gear, but we are even more passionate about the experiences it unlocks.”
The Ghost of Black Friday Past
“Black Friday: Because only in America people trample each other for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.” – @ComedyPosts
If you’re new to this uniquely American holiday, Black Friday falls on the Friday after Thanksgiving (and, no, it’s not the reason everyone has the day off). Needless to say, many of us define Black Friday as day of buyer’s indulgence—where one-day sales and the ceremonial unfurling of the holidays fuel a voracious appetite for things never truly needed. And for thousands of retailers across the country, it is traditionally the most important event of the year for—a starter pistol for the holiday shopping season. Economists and businesses alike understand the power of the season on consumers’ buying habits, and thus make the most of the seasonal spirit by creating profits. According to Fortune magazine, last year’s Black Friday drew in 87 million shoppers (27% of the U.S. population) from around the country.
As for the term “Black Friday”—that history is subject to speculation. Contradictory origin stories reference everything from the notorious traffic jams to it being the date retailers’ sales sheets go “from the red into the black”. For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the term as the seminal shopping day gleefully anticipated by some, and tantamount to the zombie apocalypse by others. Interestingly enough, Black Friday is the latest cultural export from the U.S. to have caught on in China (coined “Singles Day”) and now Britain. Black Friday reflects the longstanding change in emphasis of the holidays—let’s be honest, for many of us, it’s now about gifts.
REI’s SoHo flagship in the Puck Building will go dark this Black Friday. All employees have the day off. Photo Credit: Keith Riegert.
How Black Friday Went Nuclear
REI’s decision to forgo the annual shopping holiday may be a hint of the future demise of Black Friday. Over the past decade, an arms race of sorts has ignited between various brick and mortar retailers and e-commerce sites. The traditional, early Friday morning store openings, complete with hordes of shoppers, shivering in the cold, gave way to midnight shopping stampedes captured on CNN. Eventually, retailers crossed the date border altogether and honed in on Thanksgiving itself. Last year J.C. Penney started its Black Friday sales at 5 p.m. on Thursday—right around the time most Americans were working through their second helping of mashed potatoes. But, this year, a number of retailers, including Costco and Nordstrom, are keeping this locks on and pushing store openings back to Friday or forgoing the sales competition altogether.
Free Shipping Now Included
Retail’s Black Friday downfall may be owed in great part to the same disrupting force so many other businesses have succumbed to—the internet. After all, for all their appeal, brick and mortar stores still take physical effort to get to—pants invariably must be put on, cars driven, persons moved. The laptop on the couch? Not so much. What’s more, with lower overhead, massive online retailers have been more than happy to rewrite the rules on retail sales. For example, this year, Amazon.com started its “Black Friday” sales on Friday. . . November 21st, a full week before the traditional date. And with new players like Jet.com joining the rock-bottom pricing game, brick and mortar retailers may not be able to compete with unbeatable prices and tantalizing joy of free shipping.
The Mountains Are Calling
In the end, giving up Black Friday, at least in its most maddening forms, may be a relief for the nation’s retail stores. Along with offering fierce e-commerce competition, the internet has provided consumers with endless amounts of price data, which, over the last several years, has forced ever increasing discounts on physical retailers and cut deeper and deeper into what had once been a happy day of much-needed revenue. Instead, a slow, easy introduction of holiday deals and must-see attractions may prove more appealing and lucrative in the years to come.
As for REI, the company’s decision to shutter its stores for Black Friday has generated plenty of positive buzz for the retailer. The staff at REI’s flagship location in SoHo declined to comment for the Oppy on any specific plans for the day off; but we can only assume that a healthy dose of retail therapy won’t be made public on anybody’s personal OptOutside-day agendas.