Views From the Ground Floor on Black Friday

Ten years. It’s been 10 years since a younger, lighter version of myself cranked the ignition of a battered old Ford before sunrise and made for a Bass Pro Shops in suburban Memphis. I wasn’t going to get a deal. I was going to work.

What followed was a scene that likely still repeats itself at retailers around the nation.

A predawn team meeting was held in one final gasp to raise morale after weeks of preparation. Virtually every employee at the store had been on edge for weeks leading up to Black Friday: managers fulfilling orders from above, sales associates fulfilling orders from managers, seasonal employees fulfilling requests from sales associates, inventory specialists bracing under the weight of a surge of shipments and—probably—somewhere in Springfield, Missouri, executives hoping that Black Friday would provide a huge boost to their quarterly reports.

Through the store’s sliding glass doors, the team members gathered for the meeting could see  headlights lining the parking lot. Customers began forming a line outside. They were coming for the savings, for massive deals on blue jeans and baits and boating accessories. For executives, those lights meant hope; for employees on the ground floor, like me, they meant doom.

Black Friday for employees

At the time, Bass Pro Shops headlined its Black Friday efforts at our store with a massive wall of blue jeans discounted to ludicrous levels. Apparel associates like me were at the epicenter of that wall—an approximately 30-yard long stretch of jeans that stood about six feet in height and sat squarely in the middle of the store, a former Walmart that was actually small by Springfield standards.

“I remember getting there super early and there being a long line of people outside waiting,” recalls Betsy Edwards, a former Bass Pro Shops employee also working the apparel aisles in Memphis that day. “The jeans were a popular item, and anything labeled as ‘limited quantities’ went flying out the door.”

That last bit is a crucial bit of salesman psychology.

Research from the American Psychological Association suggests that fear of future regret can heavily influence consumer’s buying decisions. That fear can lead them to scoop up deals on Black Friday. Retailers benefit from feeding on those fears.

“I feel like people get excited to think they’re going to get something exclusive, something not everyone will be able to get their hands on,” continues Edwards. And while retailers can certainly benefit from playing on those fears, there’s a downside. According to the American Psychological Association, retailers risk causing emotional damage to shoppers if the items they purchase are further reduced in price in a post-Black Friday sale

“The lines as the register were forever long,” said Edwards. “It was the only time that all of our registers were open. The dressing rooms were a nightmare, and people were especially impatient that day.”

A changing tide

Consumers are beginning to expect more from retailers on Black Friday. They still want great deals, but they also want a better shopping experience, whether they find that online or in-store.

“In the United States, we’ve come to accept Black Friday tradition with a lowercase “t,” as well as something of a collective joke, writes ZenDesk contributor Tara Ramrop. “For a long time, it seemed we were willing to get what we paid for, valuing the deal on a flatscreen TV over a pleasant customer experience. But things are changing. Retailers are listening to their customers. One clear example is the fact that consumers love to shop both online and in-store. [Retailers] give them the best of both worlds, offering deals to encourage people to shop online and pick up in store. Major brands, such as Target and Walmart, are doing this flawlessly.”

“During these heavy holiday promotional weeks, we will see a 75% increase in sales,” chimes TackleDirect CEO Patrick Gill, whose online tackle store takes an extended approach to the shopping days around Thanksgiving. “We generate emails and marketing programs for each individual day, including Black Friday and Cyber Monday. From Thanksgiving to the Wednesday after will be the largest week in order volume from us, but we rarely limit deals to a single promotional day as they are far more effective over for us over an entire week.”

In 2016, REI scored a major marketing coup by shuttering all of its stores on Black Friday. The movement became so popular that the big box outdoor retailer has continued it every year since, giving more than 12,000 employees the day off. That move stands in stark contrast to Bass Pro Shops, whose stores—along with Cabela’s— will be open on Thanksgiving Day as well as Black Friday this year.

Studies suggest that REI could be ahead of the curve. In a 2017 survey by social media company The Tylt, 70% of consumers ages 20-36 wanted to do away with the shopping holiday altogether. That, respondents said, because Black Friday promotes consumerism and interferes with family time. That doesn’t suggest that millennials are unwilling to shop. In a move that bodes well for Gill, that same 70% also suggested that Cyber Monday was a better shopping experience than Black Friday.

Is Black Friday worth it?

Ten years ago, I would have said no. Absolutely not. From the perspective of a low-level employee at one of fishing’s largest retailers, the view of Black Friday was grim. A decade later, I still cringe when memories of the scrum of impatient humanity clamoring for blue jeans and kitschy T-shirts comes to mind. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand the position of store owners and manufacturers, many of whom count on Black Friday to anchor some of their highest volume weeks of the year.

For people like Patrick Gill, Black Friday probably is worth it. For store owners, the influx of sales surely pays off. But this year, while you’re in the middle of your own holiday rush, be especially kind to the employees on your floor.

“It was definitely the hardest day to work in retail,” echoes Edwards.

I can attest.