On Black Friday, the Real Fight Was Online
Retailers Tried to Amp Up Their Websites—But Get More In-Person Traffic, Too
By PAUL ZIOBRO and SUZANNE KAPNER - Wall Street Journal
Updated Nov. 29, 2013 11:30 p.m. ET
Brick-and-mortar retailers mounted a furious defense on Black Friday to head off incursions into one of the industry's biggest shopping days by such online rivals as Amazon.com Inc.
The tactics were evident in stores and on websites as millions of holiday shoppers lined up to spend their dollars on highly touted deals.
Chains like Macy's Inc. opened on Thanksgiving for the first time, and giants like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target moved their deals earlier Thursday, shifts intended to retrieve valuable shopping time that had been ceded to e-commerce, where the doors never close.
Best Buy Co. kept some deals hidden until customers showed up at stores, and retailers put more deals on the Web to better compete with Amazon on its own playing field.
In the early predawn hours of Thanksgiving, Jason Goldberger huddled with his team on the 20th floor of a Target Corp. building in Minneapolis to make sure everything was ready at the chain's most important store: Target.com.
The stakes were high. Online shoppers accounted for 40% of the $59 billion in sales racked up over the four-day Black Friday weekend last year, up from 23% in 2006, according to the National Retail Federation. Store traffic this year has been sluggish amid slow growth in consumer spending.
Mr. Goldberger, who runs Target's website and mobile business, arrived at 2 a.m., His staff split into two conference rooms. One held a technology team responsible for the workings of the site. The other had people comparing Target's deals with offers from Amazon.com and Walmart.com.
Monitors showed customers refreshing their browsers as they waited for Target.com's "Black Friday" deals to go online between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Another screen showed orders per hour, a closely watched measure. Once the deals went live, orders began piling up at about twice the rate of a year ago, Mr. Goldberger said.
The results offered a measure of relief. During the first 17 days of November this year, store traffic declined 4.8% from the same period the year before, according to Retail Next, which analyzes more than nine million shopping trips nationwide within 450 stores.
Meanwhile, online shopping is set to rise, with 51% of shoppers surveyed by Nielsen planning to buy something over the Internet on Friday, up from 38% last year. That compared with 48% of consumers who said they planned to visit a big-box store like Target or Wal-Mart.
Andrea Bailey is one of those online shoppers, but she wasn't on Amazon. Around 2 a.m. Thursday morning, she was sitting at a laptop in her living room in Lexington, Ky., refreshing Best Buy's website. When she finally got through, she bought a $99 Kindle Fire, made by Amazon, for her 8-year-old son.
After a couple of hours of sleep, Ms. Bailey continued her shopping spree, buying sweaters and Christmas pajamas for her 5-year-old daughter and dress shirts for her husband from Macys.com, some Disney Infinity characters for her son from Toysrus.com and a new printer from the Sam's Club website.
Altogether, Ms. Bailey spent nearly $400 before noon. She finds it easier to browse websites run by brick-and-mortar stores than to deal with Amazon's overwhelming number of options, she said: "If I go on Amazon and look at videogames, holy moly, my brain hurts."
Such big retailers as Wal-Mart and Target continue to struggle to keep up with Amazon on the Web. Despite years of effort, online sales still typically account for only around 2% of sales for the two chains.
But both companies are investing heavily to catch up. Target expects to spend more on technology next year than it does building and upgrading new stores. This year, it made virtually all of its Black Friday deals available online.
Paul Gainer, executive vice president of Disney Retail, said Friday he now checks his mobile phone for hourly updates on online sales. "This year, online sales on Thanksgiving have been above expectations," he said, "while store sales are in line with last year."
The competition for retailers is Amazon, which for a number of years offered deals in the days leading up to Black Friday to lure customers away from brick-and-mortar rivals. This year, the company added new discounts to its site as frequently as every 10 minutes to keep customers glued to the website in the hunt for bargains.
Sales by third-party retailers on Amazon rose 31% on Thursday and 25% through noon on Friday, according to ChannelAdvisor, which produces software that lets retailers sell via websites like Amazon.com and eBay.com.
Retailers, meanwhile, tried new tactics to get consumers to buy in person.
Wal-Mart said it had first planned to offer deals in its stores at 8 p.m. Thursday night. But competitive pressure and customer demand prompted the bargains to start at 6 p.m. The giant discounter said more than 22 million shoppers visited on Thanksgiving, ringing up 10 million transactions between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. that day, roughly in line with last year.
Toys "R" Us opened even earlier on Thanksgiving—at 5 p.m.—getting a jump on rivals like Target, which opened at 8 p.m.
Tammy Moore, an owner of hair salon/spas from Skaneateles, N.Y., showed up at the Toys "R" Us in New York City's Times Square. Last year, she did all buying online, she said, but her family was on a trip to the city and thought store shopping would be fun.
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"I think I probably spend more online than I do in-store just because of the convenience of being home and sitting at the computer," the 44-year-old businesswoman said. "But now that we're down here, definitely in-store."
Store chains used rolling discounts to keep shoppers lingering and competitors' guessing. On Friday at 8 a.m. Wal-Mart started "Manager's Specials," which included unannounced promotions set by individual store managers who received a set budget to spur sales.
Best Buy had three waves of Black Friday deals on tap but kept its assortment of midnight door busters, including a $500 Xbox One, under wraps for most of the evening.
Flagging bargains too early risks having competitors match or beat prices. Market Track LLC, which tracks pricing on the Web, said Best Buy had advertised a Samsung gas range for $699 in its Black Friday flier. On Wednesday, Sears dropped its price for the oven to $599. By Thursday, Best Buy and hhgregg Inc. had matched the lower price.
—Shelly Banjo, Greg Bensinger, Drew FitzGerald and Daniel Lippman contributed to this article.