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Black Friday resumed somewhat normal operations this year, after almost two years of pandemic-skewed shopping habits. But this year’s numbers show that society still isn’t back to “normal” when it comes to shopping habits. In fact, the event that once had middle aged moms brawling for a Tickle-Me Elmo didn’t deliver any record-breaking numbers this year. 

Industry experts partially attribute the drop in sales to the fact that consumers took advantage of deals that started as early as October, causing demand to fall off ahead of the shopping extravaganza. 

That’s not to say that Black Friday still wasn’t a success for many retailers. According to data from Sensormatic Solutions, foot traffic soared about 48 percent from last year, though it remained down about 28 percent from 2019. Contrary to the wee hours that Black Friday used to peak, the peak time for in-store shopping was 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday. Many retailers remained closed on Thanksgiving Day after closing for the day in 2020, reversing a yearslong trend of being open on the holiday. 

Meanwhile, Adobe Analytics data showed that consumers spent about $8.9 billion online on Black Friday, slightly less than in 2020, and $5.1 billion on Thanksgiving, which was pretty much on par with last year. It was the first time Adobe saw a decrease on big shopping days since it first began reporting eCommerce data back in 2012 (which is shockingly almost a decade ago).

On Cyber Monday, shoppers logged on and spent $10.7 billion, marking a 1.4% decrease from year-ago levels, according to Adobe Analytics. The good news, as George Anderson from Retail Wire points out, is that it was the single biggest day for online shopping in 2021. But still, the numbers definitely aren’t where they used to be. 

The deals also weren’t anything to write home about this year. Cyber Monday discounts offered on electronics were around 12 percent this year compared to 27 percent in 2020. Retailers discounted sporting goods eight percent compared to 20 percent last year. 

Department Stores Come Back to Life

Ironically enough, department stores are getting some love from shoppers this Black Friday, after getting pummeled by the pandemic from lengthy closures and bankruptcies.

Retail analyst Deborah Weinswig noted the stores had surprisingly strong amounts of foot traffic when she visited malls in the Providence, Rhode Island and Boston area. Weinswig, the CEO and founder of Coresight Research, said she overheard some shoppers commenting on bargains at JCPenney, a department store notoriously struggling. This is contrary to other observations of little to no sales in stand-alone stores and DTC sellers. 

Weinswig also observed that traffic seemed stronger at malls versus off-mall locations. Did the pandemic make us miss the feeling of shopping in a decked-out festive mall for the holidays? It’s possible. Out-of-stocks were pretty common among popular home goods and basic apparel items, like denim and skivvies. Some customers even appeared to be nearing the end of their lists, focusing instead on buying items for themselves. Guilty as charged. 

Moreover, Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette also noted that more people shopped at its stores on the shopping holiday than a year ago, after a surge of online shopping on Thanksgiving day.

Buy Now, Pay Later has its Moment

According to Reuters, volumes on PayPal’s’ buy now, pay later’ platform were five times higher this Black Friday compared with a year earlier. The payments giant is quickly gaining traction in the fast-growing credit method.

PayPal launched its “Buy in 4” platform back in August of 2020, making its entry into the competitive lending space. PayPal CEO Dan Schulman said the company already saw a 400% year-on-year rise on volumes of consumers using buy now, pay later’ this past Black Friday. 

The company also bolstered over 1 million first-time users for the first time ever in the month of November.

Sustainability Matters

Black Friday’s carbon footprint shows just how far away we still are from breaking eco-unfriendly habits. In particularly unsettling research, Green Alliance found that 80% of Black Friday purchases and associated plastic packaging ends up in landfill, incineration, or shoddy recycling each year.

Even when brands attempt to slap a “sustainable” spin on Black Friday, pushing “eco-friendly” deals, something isn’t adding up. There’s an increasing amount of greenwashing around these sales. The overconsumption encouraged during this time can never truly be sustainable. And in this day and age, with the rise of TikTok making deals and new products viral, true sustainability can never be fulfilled. 

Not to mention, on a more specific level, because so many transactions are made, more emissions are created, more waste is generated, and more trucks are dispatched to meet the demand. The Guardian actually pointed out that in 2017, a diesel truck left an Amazon fulfilment centre around every 93 seconds. Yikes. 

Transportation has a significant environmental impact. It has been estimated that shipping accounts for 3-4% of human-caused carbon emissions. A recent report from the European Parliament estimated that the number could rise as high as 17% by 2050. Double yikes. 

Still, in this society, that doesn’t mean people aren’t opening up their wallets. Holiday sales are expected to climb at a record pace this year, with the National Retail Federation predicting an increase of between 8.5% and 10.5%. That would put sales during November and December at $843.4 billion and $859 billion. As society and the economy recover from an unprecedented few years, the numbers will surely fluctuate. But only time will tell if the numbers will ever get back to “normal”.