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KEY POINTS

  • The FGRT team visited 33 stores across six US markets between Thanksgiving evening and Black Friday this year. We visited 18 specialty retail stores, seven department stores, six discount stores and two off-price stores, variously located in Manhattan, Southampton and Staten Island, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Paramus, New Jersey.
  • Traffic and inventory levels were satisfactory overall. Among the stores we visited, Walmart, Nike and Best Buy were the biggest winners in terms of traffic on Black Friday, and they offered excellent traffic control and in-store experiences.
  • The FGRT team was impressed by the quality of in-store customer service we saw across retailers; service seemed significantly better than on Black Friday last year. Retailers appear to have invested more in training for temporary staff this year.
  • According to Planalytics, a lack of rain and snow encouraged US shoppers to visit retail stores over Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Cold temperatures in major eastern US markets benefited seasonal apparel categories such as coats, scarves and gloves. Warmer temperatures in western markets likely shifted some demand away from seasonal apparel.
  • We saw limited use of innovative retail technologies during our store visits, but saw plenty of entertainment offerings in stores.
  • The athleisure and consumer electronics categories were big traffic drivers over Black Friday. Nike and Lululemon Athletica both experienced strong traffic despite offering limited discounts.

Between the evening of Thanksgiving and the end of Black Friday, the FGRT team visited 33 stores across six US locations: Manhattan, Southampton and Staten Island, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Paramus, New Jersey. We visited 18 specialty retail stores, seven department stores, six discount stores and two off-price stores. Overall, our Black Friday store visits in the US were a positive indicator for the overall holiday shopping season and for retail sales. We saw solid levels of traffic and customer engagement in most of the stores we visited. Below are our top five takeaways from our Black Friday store visits in the US.

1) Decent Black Friday Traffic and Inventory Levels Indicate an Overall Positive Holiday Season for Retailers

Traffic and stock levels were decent overall at the stores we visited. Walmart, Nike and Best Buy appeared to be the biggest winners in terms of traffic on Black Friday, and the stores offered excellent traffic control and in-store experiences. At the Walmart store we visited, yellow tape and extra staff helped guide customers at checkout. Nike’s Manhattan flagship store was very crowded when we visited, and customers were concentrated in the sports jersey and running shoe areas. In-store traffic at popular teen destinations such as Forever 21, Hollister and Victoria’s Secret seemed higher than last year on Black Friday. Traffic levels at department stores we visited varied. At Saks Fifth Avenue, traffic appeared to be solid, but we saw fewer customers at Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom.

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2) In-Store Customer Service Improved Significantly Across Retailers

The FGRT team was impressed by the quality of in-store customer service offered by the retailers whose stores we visited. Overall, customer service seemed greatly improved over last year and retailers seem to have invested in training for temporary staff members this year. Store associates were particularly knowledgeable and helpful at the Walmart, Kate Spade, Victoria’s Secret and T.J.Maxx stores we visited. Target equipped its store associates with handheld devices to look up out-of-stock items online for customers. Staff at American Eagle Outfitters contributed to the store’s overall positive energy, as did the videos that were playing in the store.

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3) In the East, Cold and Dry Weather Benefited Seasonal Apparel Categories and Drove Store Traffic

According to analysis from Planalytics, a lack of rain and snow across the US encouraged consumers to visit retail stores over the Thanksgiving–Black Friday period. Thanksgiving 2017 was the driest Thanksgiving since 2014 and Black Friday was the driest since 1999. The four-day Thanksgiving weekend was the driest in over 20 years.

Cold temperatures in major markets in the eastern US benefited sales of seasonal categories such as coats, scarves and gloves. Most eastern markets, including New York, Boston and Baltimore, as well as Chicago, experienced their coldest Thanksgiving since 2014, according to data from Planalytics. At the Ann Taylor store we visited, winter categories featured strongly: there were pink and plaid day coats at $125 and $130 (after 50% off) that combined sharp pricing with on-trend fashion for a strong value proposition.

Meanwhile, western markets saw their warmest Thanksgiving weekend in many years. Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas were approximately 10°F to 15°F degrees warmer over the weekend than the same period last year. In these markets, those temperatures likely prompted shoppers to switch some purchases from cold-weather apparel to nonseasonal categories such as electronics and home goods.

4) Not Enough Technology, but Plenty of In-Store Entertainment

The FGRT team saw limited use of retail technology at the stores we visited. Notable applications included Target’s use of handheld inventory-checking devices to help customers find what they needed and Abercrombie & Fitch’s buy-online, pick-up-in-store service. This stands in sharp contrast to the wide use of technology in retail in Asian markets during major shopping festivals. For example, during Alibaba’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival in China (Singles’ Day) in November, we saw a significant level of innovation in terms of in-store technology, with retailers using smart mirrors, smart inventory systems and various technologies designed to speed checkout.

In-store entertainment seemed to be a big focus for retailers across categories on Black Friday in the US. The Lululemon Athletica store we visited in Manhattan attracted very heavy traffic with live hip-hop music, while the Nike flagship store in Manhattan drew a lengthy line of kids who wanted to play basketball in the store. Canadian fashion specialty retailer Aritzia provided comfortable seating with coffee table books for customers to leaf through as they rested or waited on other shoppers. And Target provided snacks for customers at the door.

5) Athleisure and Consumer Electronics Categories Showed Strength

Our Black Friday store visits indicated that the athleisure category is still going strong, despite brands such as Nike and Lululemon Athletica offering few discounts on athleisure items this year. The Nike and Lululemon stores we visited in Manhattan were two of the busiest in terms of traffic on Black Friday. The Nike flagship saw very strong traffic while offering no Black Friday specials and Lululemon offered only a limited number of items on sale at 10%–25% off. By contrast, most of the other specialty retailers we visited were offering discounts of 30%–50%.

Consumer electronics was another category that was a big traffic driver on Black Friday. Macy’s featured Amazon’s Echo device and Marshall headphones in the activewear department in order to create an active lifestyle showcase for customers. Amazon’s Echo, Bose headphones and Fitbits were on display in the center of the Bloomingdale’s store in Manhattan. At Best Buy, we saw a long line of customers waiting to get good deals on consumer electronics on Black Friday.

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Our Overall Impressions

At each store we visited, we evaluated the store experience on a scale of 1–10, based on a weighted average of the following metrics: traffic, promotion level, inventory, retailtainment options and use of technology. Big-box discounters as a group scored the highest. JCPenney, Walmart and Ann Taylor scored the highest when compared with their peers. The table below lists the stores we visited, sorted by retail sector, along with their overall scores based on our in-store experiences.

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