It may be hard for people to remember, but Black Friday used to be just one day.
What has now become a sprawling shopping holiday, which seemingly grows bigger each year, used to be a one-day event where stores kicked off the Christmas season on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Now, driven by competition between retailers and the growth of the Internet, Black Friday the actual day has lost meaning. It's no longer the start of the holiday shopping season and it's not the day in which the best deals are to be had. Major retailers acknowledge that.
"Black Friday is no longer about waking up at the crack of dawn to stand in long lines and hope for the best. At Walmart, it has become a family shopping tradition where everyone shops at some point throughout the weekend," said Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) Chief Merchandising Officer Duncan Mac Naughton.
His counterpart at Target (NYSE:TGT) agrees. "Whether shopping online, on their phone or in our stores, Target's guests will find Black Friday deals on top gifts throughout November," said Target Chief Merchandising and Supply Chain Officer Kathee Tesija.
It used to be a one-day sale that has grown, depending upon the retailer, into a month-plus event that often tramples on the Thanksgiving holiday but has no clear beginning and an end that moves closer and closer to when Santa Claus places the presents under the tree.
1. Earlier sales make the actual day irrelevant
Black Friday, as recently as a few years ago, was all about getting up early and hitting stores first on the actual day. Recently that creeped into stores opening on Thursday night and now both Wal-Mart and Target, along with other major retailers, are spreading out the sales over a longer period. Wal-Mart has announced a five-day sale starting its festivities with with online sales Thanksgiving morning and kicking off its in-store events at 6 p.m. on the actual holiday. Target started with a "preview" sale on Nov. 10 and plans a "presale" the day before Thanksgiving followed by a 6 p.m. start on Thanksgiving. It plans to dole out more Black Friday deals through the weekend.
Best Buy (NYSE:BBY), Toys R US, and J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) all plan similar extended sales with Thursday openings. The National Retail Federation reports that 44.8 million people shopped on Thanksgiving Day last year, up 27% from the prior year. On Black Friday last year, 92.1 million people shopped.
2. Digital sales can trump physical ones
In many cases, physically going to the store is more a tradition than a necessity. Not only will the major retailers be offering digital deals but most online retailers will be as well. Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), the 800-pound gorilla in the online retail world has essentially turned the entire month of November through Christmas into one long sales event. Rather than one specific sales day or even multiple days, Amazon is releasing new deals every day through the end of the season.
"This year, we will have more than 15,000 hand-selected, limited time promotions on hot products, including new early access deals for Prime members on many Lightning Deals from Amazon.com and daily sales events on MyHabit," explained Amazon Marketing VP Steve Shure.
3. Savvy customers know to wait
The biggest threat to the relevancy of Black Friday may be that it's no longer the best day for shoppers to get deals. Heading out after eating on Thanksgiving or getting up early the next morning to brave long lines and fight off other shoppers made sense when that brought the biggest savings. Now, however, that's no longer true and the best way to save money might be to act early.
"Based on an analysis of last year's data, the best day for deals is ... the Sunday before Thanksgiving! This year, particularly when it comes to online shopping, it's a certainty that we are among the best days for deals already," wrote syndicated radio host/personal finance guru Clark Howard on his website on Nov. 10.
Another, riskier way to save is to simply wait. In recent years, stores that struggled at the start of the season offered larger, more desperate sales as the holiday loomed closer. In some cases, the cheapest prices can be found after Christmas, though that's a better strategy if you're looking for a broad category such as a new 40-inch TV or a touchscreen laptop than a specific brand and model.
Black Friday no longer matters
If you can save more money by not shopping on Black Friday, then there is really no reason to stop the Thanksgiving celebration to line up outside your favorite store or to wake up early the next morning. Black Friday the day is now Black Friday the season. There are deals to be had for most of November and December. The challenge is picking the right time to make your purchases.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com and Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.