It’s that time of year again, when retailers bust out flashy advertisements and heavy markdowns to bring themselves back into the black for the year. A rocky year has meant that stores are banking on holiday shopping to be a success and the margin for victory may be slimmer than in years past. Black Friday has seen some remodeling recently and this year is no different as the once titular Friday following Thanksgiving has ballooned into weeks and sometimes months’ worth of sales. This strategy could convince cautious consumers to spend, or it could dilute sales over a larger span of time. With many retailers facing sales struggles, how low are they willing to slash prices, and will it really make up for lost revenue?

Black Friday will technically be kicking off this Friday, yet many retailers have already started with some promotions operating for weeks. The verbiage used by various stores can get a little confusing with some clearly labeling sales as “early Black Friday deals” noting that deeper discounts will be coming closer to the actual day. Others like Lowe’s began at the end of October and are offering “Black Friday Every Day” which could leave consumers questioning what kind of discounts are actually taking place. Even in the case where Amazon ran an early deal last week and their actual deal this week, there was no line of demarcation for customers to easily see that the sale had changed.

All of these early discounts are meant to prolong consumer interest and give retailers a larger time span to make a sale. With the blurring of physical and online stores, the need to have all major Black Friday sales occur on one day has become moot. The longer sales period eases pressure on the supply chain and reduces holiday staffing problems at brick & mortar locations. The mad rush of shoppers who camp outside of stores and push and pull their way through crowds to get a coveted item created havoc that led to a higher chance of theft and accidents at stores. The more spread sales period is beneficial to both retailers and consumers, yet there is the chance it is taken too far. Unclear marketing could lead to shoppers who are confused about what is and isn’t a Black Friday deal and they could end up waiting to spend if they believe a better deal is coming later. Customers have been reluctant to spend all year and failing to gain their interest during Black Friday would have major consequences.

All of the big box retailers like Walmart, Amazon, and Target will come out okay even if Black Friday fails to meet expectations. The problem lies in more specialized and smaller retailers that can ill afford a letdown right now. When looking at recent census data we see that department stores, clothing stores, and electronic retailers are trending downward, and they will need a strong finish to the year. These kinds of retailers have been reliant on Black Friday to pull them back from the brink since the pandemic and there is the very real possibility that it won’t happen this year. Have retailers done enough to draw in consumers for one final push?

In years past, the supply chain, labor shortages, and skyrocketing inflation have dominated the narrative around Black Friday and companies have persevered. The same narratives have not dominated the conversation this year and while things like inflation are still an issue, companies have had ample time to make adjustments. With fewer outside factors, this year should be a runaway success, yet consumers are still holding onto their money. Many companies have bet the farm that longer sale periods and constant Black Friday labeling will end the slump. If we look closely, we do see some dissention among the retailing ranks when it comes to strategy. Lowe’s is pushing it to the max with a month-long sale, yet Walmart, one of leaders in B2C, is delaying their Black Friday until the day before Thanksgiving. That is almost a week later than some of their biggest competitors and hews much closer to sales of the past.

This current Black Friday will be a seminal moment for retailers. If final sales numbers come in below expectations, there will be major changes next year. We could see more retailers push into October or they could keep things closer to the vest and drum up interest with more limited time frames. Black Friday has arrived, and we now hold our breath for the results.