Will More Black Friday Discounts Offset Pre-Election Slump?

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U.S. retailers should probably be grateful that presidential elections only happen every four years. In the two weeks leading up to the elections, consumers kept their hands firmly on their wallets, despite early Black Friday sales and a higher level of discounting compared with last year.

We’ve already noted the considerably smaller-than-expected growth in online sales for the first two weeks of November. Online retailers left about $800 million on the table, according to research from Adobe Digital Insights.

Retail analytics firm EDITED reviewed sales of apparel, accessories and footwear during the final week of October and compared sales to the same period last year. Senior analyst Katie Smith summed up the results:

Retailers are discounting earlier, potentially pre-empting sluggish sales thanks to consumer uncertainty leading up to the election. With the holiday discounting only a few weeks away, this leaves little time to secure full price gifting sales. At this point, retailers will need to be exceptionally targeted with their content in order to educate consumers on the value of their full price merchandise.

Here are some of EDITED’s detailed findings:

  • Product sell-outs were down by 60%.
  • Full priced (not discounted) sell-outs decreased by 36%, while the average price of full-priced items was up compared to the same week last year: $119.25 versus $79.96.
  • Discounts increased by 46% compared with last year.
  • “Sale” has been used 44% more times by retailers in their newsletters to customers this year.
  • The top products seeing discounts include footwear, knitwear and skirts, while leggings experienced one of the lowest average discounts (3.3%).
  • The biggest discounters (those who slashed the most products’ prices by 50% or more) included Farfetch, Nordstrom, Hudson’s Bay, Kohl’s, Ssense and Lulus.
  • On Black Friday last year, 41.5% of the entire U.S. apparel market was discounted by an average of 36%, and a high percentage of discounts is likely again this year.

On Election Day itself, discounting was essentially double last year’s non-election total. Discount numbers were up 40% this year, but sell-outs were down 60%. Oddly perhaps, sales picked up immediately after the election, when there were fewer discounts being offered. The number of discounts dropped by 64%, but full-price sell-outs rose by 17% compared with the same period of last year.

We’ve noted before that Black Friday has now expanded backward to begin on November 1, and the effect is to dilute sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving. For that we should all be grateful because it has nearly eliminated the crush of shoppers who wait overnight for stores to open and have caused injuries and even deaths in the stampede to be first to get to their chosen items.

Online sales that typically kick-off ahead of actually store openings have also helped spread holiday sales out over several weeks.

The bad news this year is that neither online nor in-store sales got off to a particularly good start due to the presidential election. If discounts were way up, then margins have been way down. Now that the election has settled some things, perhaps consumers will begin spending more freely as retailers up the ante.

The percentage of discount offers is expected to average 38% of all sales for the four-days between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Last year the total reached 30% on the Black Friday weekend and maintained that percentage into the first weekend of December.

According to EDITED’s Katie Smith, “While consumers took to shopping online immediately after the surprising results of the election, retailers will need to rely heavily on sales during Black Friday to make up for current shortfalls.” That does not augur well for retail profits for the biggest shopping event of the year nor for the holiday season in general.