Last year saw a resurgence of retail foot traffic, as consumers were excited by the easing of Covid restrictions and looking to spend their stimulus money and pandemic savings descended on brick-and-mortar stores. But now, the pent-up demand of 2021 has been replaced with consumer concerns over rising prices, which is already impacting retail’s strongest season.
Consumers are planning on doing their holiday shopping at superstores and discount and dollar stores – which is why they may not have felt the need to rush to specialty stores for Black Friday discounts. This also means that there is still plenty of time for retail foot traffic to pick up as we get closer to the Christmas holiday.
With less than a month left of 2022, we dove into the data to find out whether this holiday season may still hold some surprises – and why the pandemic is still having a major impact on Q4 2022 retail.
Black Friday’s Relative Decline
Black Friday was particularly anticipated this year. Pre-Thanksgiving retail visits were lower than in 2021 when retailers called on consumers to shop early and avoid shortages, but higher than in 2019 when Black Friday had not yet fully morphed into the weeks-long sales season it is now. This seemed to indicate that, while some consumers took advantage of the numerous pre-Black Friday deals offered this year, many other cost-conscious shoppers were waiting for Black Friday in hopes of snagging the best bargains.
Despite the anticipation, retail foot traffic during the week of Black Friday 2022 was not just lower than in 2019 – it was also lower than last year. Data from online traffic tracker Similarweb reveals that site traffic to major retailers on Black Friday and Cyber Monday also fell relative to 2021, indicating that ongoing inflation is constraining consumer behavior both on- and offline.
Inflation and budgetary concerts undoubtedly contributed to the somewhat muted retail performance over Black Friday 2022. But zooming out to look at retail foot traffic patterns over the past years reveals some wider changes in consumer behaviors that likely also contributed to the decreased centrality of the day.
A Move Towards General Retail
Comparing visits to specialty retailers – including athletic wear brands, electronics retailers, and department stores – with visits to general retailers such as Walmart, Costco, and Dollar General indicates a shift in offline shopping habits over the past few years.
Before the pandemic, visits to general retailers tended to exceed visits to specialty retailers between Q1 and Q3, but foot traffic to specialty retailers jumped every year in Q4 as consumers visited their favorite brands to buy personalized gifts for their friends and family. Superstores and dollar and discount stores also received a Q4 foot traffic boost as shoppers stocked up on party supplies, but the spike was significantly softer than the equivalent foot traffic increase to specialty retailers.
In 2020, however, visits to specialty retailers plummeted while visits to general retailers – many of which were classified as essential and allowed to remain open – remained steady. And in Q4 2020, the end of year visit increase to general retailers beat the Q4 foot traffic spike to specialty retailers for the first time.
Last year, as Covid restrictions eased and specialty retailers reopened, Q4 visits to specialty retailers rose back up – though not quite to pre-Covid levels. Meanwhile, visits to general retailers – many of which expanded significantly over the pandemic – also jumped, and so general retailers once again outperformed specialty retailers in Q4 2021.
What Does All This Have to Do with Black Friday?
The drop in Black Friday 2022 retail visits could be attributed to the increasingly early “Black Friday” visits driving pre-Thanksgiving traffic at the expense of the retail holiday. And some of the dip is likely due to consumers tightening their purse strings in the face of rising prices. But another reason for the waning centrality of this retail holiday to the wider Q4 shopping season could have to do with changes in how – and where – consumers shop for gifts.
Black Friday attracts consumers looking for special deals and promotions on high-ticket items – which is why electronic retailers are consistently major beneficiaries of the day, and this year was no exception. But since the pandemic, shoppers have shifted their Q4 spending away from specialty retailers and towards general retailers such as superstores and dollar and discount stores that offer low prices more consistently throughout the season. And if these consumers are looking for value-priced goods to begin with, they may not be as reliant on Black Friday and the steep discounts that specialty retailers offer on those days.
What Does This Mean for the Rest of the Season?
Last year’s holiday shopping started early as retailers encouraged consumers to visit stores before inventory ran out – and the season was then cut short by the rise of the Omicron variant. This year, pre-Thanksgiving was lower than in 2021, which means that the extended holiday season did not have too much of an impact – so the weak Black Friday numbers also mean that many consumers still need to buy gifts for their friends and family.
If the past two years are any indication, many of these consumers are planning on doing their holiday shopping at superstores and discount and dollar stores – which is why they may not have felt the need to rush to specialty stores for Black Friday discounts. This also means that there is still plenty of time for retail foot traffic to pick up as we get closer to the Christmas holiday.