Black Friday is Accelerating the Evolution of Retail

"Black Friday is definitely in flux and digital is driving a new definition for the day."

After Thanksgiving, my family and I pull out the Airstream® and do an annual camping trip to the beach here in the Pacific Northwest. This used to mean that we would forego the fantastic deals of Black Friday and get started a bit later than everyone else on our holiday shopping. Now, however, we don’t miss a beat as an iPad, our phones, and a good WIFI signal mean we can easily do both.


With certainty, eCommerce, BOPIS and mobile apps have dramatically changed Black Friday into what we see today. These digital tools have expanded store boundaries, hours and access, all for the better. In addition, these changes have forced retailers to find new, innovative, ways to merchandise and bring people into the store. 


As omni-channel options expand, shopper numbers continue to increase with the National Retail Federation pointing to a healthy 4.8% growth for this Black Friday over 2017. There is also ongoing fragmentation with Adobe estimating online sales grew 23% while physical retail saw up to a 7% decline according to RetailNext. Finally, as reported by Salesforce, this year saw mobile jump 6% to account for 67% of all digital visits and almost half of all orders.


For Retailers, a huge amount of effort is put into Black Friday to ensure websites are robust and secure as even being down for a few minutes might cost them millions in lost sales. It is also a key time for refreshing the store, launching products and innovating with new services like curbside pickup or home delivery.


With a critical mass of shoppers and the need for retailers to have every channel in order, Black Friday has become a hyper-condensed look at the future of retail. In other words, if it is important it will be ready for Black Friday and if it works you will see it for the rest of the year.


Digital is a driving force in this evolution and if we look at some of the key developing areas, we can predict what Black Friday (and retail) might look like in the future.


Inventory Transparency

Black Friday has always been about transparency…for price. Prices, low ones, are the driving force to get people shopping at a particular retailer and volumes of advertising has helped to prepare shoppers with the best deals.


Digital and mobile have now brought us another valuable tool for some retailers and that is inventory transparency. Shoppers have indicated they want to not only know which retailers sell the products they want and where, they now demand this information down to the exact color, size and quantity. This can make consumers more efficient and better planners to maximize their Black Friday shopping.


Retailers’ legacy technology systems don’t always make this an easy task and the next few years will see more behind-the-scenes innovation. Linking ordering and inventory software systems to consumer facing commerce platforms and apps will be a key focus in making this inventory transparency a reality.


Values Matter

More and more shoppers have indicated that they favor retailers (and brands) who stand for something that aligns with their personal values. We have seen Black Friday appear as a way for companies to live up to those brand promises. REI actually benefits from not being open on Black Friday because of #optoutside, while other retailers have launched exclusive products and programs to drive return visits. Physical retail itself is undergoing changes to become more experiential and engaging as orders shift online.


The future of Black Friday is set up to be a perfect launching pad for retailers to define and implement their values to consumers, creating meaningful connections and store experiences which should translate to loyalty throughout the year.


Curation via Personalization

Something that hasn’t changed is that Black Friday can be overwhelming. The number of deals and retailers creates a sea of messages in inboxes and litters advertising across traditional and digital channels. Fear of missing out and limited time creates stress for consumers, and this is where data and personalization can really shine for retailers via their digital tools. 


The ability to know customers and curate products for them has long been an advantage of sites like Amazon but is slowly coming into the digital toolsets of most popular retailers. While specifically helpful for Black Friday, these services will help return shoppers throughout the year getting them to buy more, more often.



Macy’s, 7-11, Walmart and others have launched the ability for shoppers to check-out from anywhere in the store just by using their mobile phone, just in time for Black Friday. Even though traffic was down this year in traditional stores, they are still filled with deal seekers and long lines, making self-service desirable. And, it seems to be working as retailer app downloads dramatically increased this Black Friday with 1.8 million new downloads and a 16% increase in first-time users according to analytics platform Sensor Tower.


Self-service is a larger trend in retail and the coming years will see a dramatic increase in the service, driven by mobile. While many of these options may include self-checkout, access to other options like order pickup, recommendations and customer service should appear as well.


Black Friday is definitely in flux and digital is driving a new definition for the day. Coming out of this year’s successes, fast-followers will be busy at work trying to innovate and reinforce their technical infrastructure. At the same time, many retailers and brands are already thinking of what they will need to bring to market for next year’s big push, even as holiday shopping is just getting into full swing.


I will look forward to working with retailers over this next year to continue their digital evolution and be ready to sit back by the fire and shop Black Friday from my campsite as the waves roll in.

Steve White
VP, Commerce Strategy Publicis Sapient

Steve White is a digital agency veteran, entrepreneur and executive within Publicis Sapient’s Retail Practice. He specializes in helping clients navigate Digital Business Transformation via comprehensive commerce strategies, IT Modernization, Data/AI and explorations around the store of the. Steve is a council member of the National Retail Federation, speaker and frequent media contributor.