Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Crowds of Black Friday

2009 has been another rough year for the retail sector, as it continues to be battered by rising unemployment, pessimistic consumers, and newly thrifty shoppers. As Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season approaches, retail observers are placing their bets. Will customers continue to sit on their wallets, refusing to budge until they see massive discounts? Or will they capitulate in a Christmas shopping frenzy as retailers try to hold the line on prices?

One thing is certain: come Friday, stores will be mobbed as about a quarter of American households shake off their tryptophan-induced stupor and hit the stores (latest one-upsmanship schtick: Old Navy stores will open at 3 a.m., maybe because you can never know the extent of the pent-up demand for cargo pants at that hour of the morning). Last year, Black Friday was marred by a tragic death when a Wal-Mart worker was trampled by an out-of-control bargain-seeking horde. This year, writes the New York Times, stores are taking steps to better manage crowds. The Times reports that Wal-Mart is taking a page from experts who manage throngs at major events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics to prevent crowding. There’s a poetic irony in the fact that as consumers are purportedly pinching pennies, they literally can’t storm the stores fast enough.

Time reports that this year, retailers and shoppers are engaged in a game of chicken as shoppers wait for discounts and retailers try to dig in their heels. But do you think this game of double-dare is the new normal? From now on, might the contest go something like this:

Phase 1: people sit at home on their hands, stubbornly refusing to consume.
Phase 2: retailers put deals and discounts lower and lower and until they finally hit the "magic” percentage off number;
Phase 3: floodgates open; aisles full; cash registers sing; everybody happy; life is good.
Phase 4: retailers quickly repeal the dramatic offers because—oops—they’re too costly.
Phase 5: consumers go back to being unhappy—give retailers the cold shoulder and sit at home, waiting them out until the next time.
Phase 6: see Phase 2.
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