Black Friday weekend is just not what it used to be.
Despite falling gas prices, stock prices posting records, and buoyant consumer confidence, Thanksgiving weekend sales—in stores and on-line—were down about 11 percent from last year.
Five forces combined to reduce this year’s spending binge—and most will endure in the years ahead.
1. Black Friday Isn’t So Special Anymore
Years ago, retailers attracted shoppers to malls the day after Thanksgiving by offering limited supply door openers—one-day deep discounts. These days more stores open on Thanksgiving Day, offer equally good deals the days before and after Black Friday, and keep cutting prices to clear out inventory before Christmas rather than hold back for January sales.
Black Friday simply isn’t special anymore, unless a shopper is scooping up that deeply discounted home theater whose availability may disappear. It may be a great day to get out and have fun with friends, but Black Friday is often not the best day to get the best deal.
2. Middle Class Has Less Money to Spend
For most folks’ incomes have not kept up with inflation.
Since 2007, median family income is down more than $4000, and the biggest price increases have been for items most folks deem necessities—food and rent, health care, and internet and cellular phone service.
To accommodate, middle class families are spending less on apparel, furniture and appliances, and meals in restaurants.
Americans may still be purchasing items for everyone on their holiday list but are forced by limited budgets to buy less expensive items—unless they borrow.
3. Americans Are More Cautious about Debt
Americans once viewed what they could afford by the money in their pockets and bank accounts, but after World War II that increasingly changed to include what they could borrow on credit cards and with second mortgages.
Hardships in the wake of the financial crisis have changed habits. Americans still borrow for cars and college but are more reluctant to buy other items on time payments.
For retailers, Black Friday was all about getting folks into the stores with hot door openers and then inspiring impulse purchasing but the new caution about credit cards puts a real damper on that strategy.
4. Lower Gas Prices
Gas prices have fallen, freeing up lots of income, one would think, for Black Friday binges. However, many Americans took the extra cash to the new car showroom, where sales of larger vehicles like the GM Sierra and Chrysler Ram rocketed.
New car buyers will be putting the savings from lower gas prices into car payments, and to some extent, back into their gas tanks by shifting to less fuel efficient vehicles.
5. Cultural Change
Growing up in New York and near some of the nation’s busiest shopping malls, Thanksgiving was for my dad and uncles—football from morning into the night—and Black Friday was for my mom and aunts.
These days women are more career oriented, and while they still like to shop (and so do the men for electronic toys we didn’t have in the 1960s), it is simply less the iconic holiday it once was.
Black Friday—and Cyber Monday—are now about getting good deals, and retailers have increasingly made the days around Thanksgiving less attractive by the even better deals yet to come. Americans—living on more constrained budgets and scarred by the financial crisis—are more inclined to wait until the days just prior to Christmas
Just as baseball once reigned supreme, only to be replaced by college basketball and pro football, a new sensibility is reducing Black Friday weekend to the status of only a major holiday—not the day of days in America’s consumer culture.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1