This past week and weekend saw news stories about sales, the conflict between familial holiday traditions and capitalism, and online versus “brick-and-mortar” stores. Around the Thanksgiving tables across the country, shoppers were planning and plotting their strategies to get the best deals, others were engaged in considerable teeth-gnashing about the loss of the family component of the holiday, and still others were debating the merits of online shopping versus visiting physical stores (and then a sub-discussion about whether to shop the major national retailers or support the smaller independent stores in town).
Conventional wisdom holds that retailers refer to Friday after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday” because it is the time when the business turns from operating in the “red” (at a loss) to being in the “black” (making a profit) due to the volume of business done between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Of course, the level of competition for securing sales in that period of time is heightened. Certain “big ticket items” (electronics especially) are often used as loss-leaders or inducements to get shoppers to come into the stores with the promise of bargains.
However, not every product is priced at the same deep discount levels (and even some of those that are “on deep discount” are not necessarily a “bargain” in that the discount may actually be off of a much higher price than would ordinarily be seen in the marketplace). Therefore, it is critically important that the shopper truly know the competitive pricing on items and assess the value of the product, or advertised discounts may create a false sense of savings.
Families vs. Capitalism
One of the common complaints that is surfaced around this time of the year is the minimizing of the “true” meaning of the holiday and the crass commercialization of the next few weeks (and it seems it is starting earlier each year). News stories carry tales of retailers opening their doors on the holiday, remaining open throughout the night, and putting employees to work at times that prevent them from sharing the holiday with their families. Unfortunately for some employees, the economy does not provide them with options other than working those days. It has become an accepted condition of employment. If you are to work in retail, you are going to likely be expected to work on holidays or at less desirable hours.
The trade-off does make for some hardships for employees. However, retail workers are not the only ones that have to confront those challenges. Medical personnel in hospitals, police, fire fighters, and others also must cover shifts that include holidays or other traditional family times. It may be an undesirable aspect of employment, however, it is not (or should not be) a surprise when the need arises.
Online vs. Stores
One of the websites that tracks trends in retailing is www.morningnewsbeat.com. The primary writer, Kevin Coupe, is fond of repeating the phrase, “compete is a verb.” What he means by that phrase is that situations change, competition makes advances, shoppers and consumers migrate to different expectations and/or “needs,” etc. While shop owners can wring our hands and moan about the unfairness of having to compete with online retailers, how it used to be in the old days, etc. – the reality is that today’s market conditions include large national competitors that are both “big-box stores” in town, and online competitors that promise to ship products (often within a day or two).
The dynamic has shifted. Shoppers and consumers have more information than previously available. Therefore, trying to compete strictly on price (which can be compared instantly through online sites across numerous retail options) will rarely provide an advantage. However, offering unique products, a different shopping experience, better customer service, or other aspects of the purchasing occasion are still ways for a store owner to compete more successfully.
Trying to put the genie back in the bottle is never successful. In today’s environment, being open during the holiday shopping season is almost a given (with rare exceptions where the attempt is made to differentiate it from other retailers – PC Richards is trying that locally), online competition is a reality. And, for better or for worse, employees are needed to allow retailers to staff the stores during this time period.