Retailers won their first battle in the holiday shopping season as consumers came out in force for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. As the traditional kickoff for the holiday shopping season, the strong start relieved retailers battered by flat sales over the past few months as consumers snapped their wallets shut amid the continued economic crisis.
“Retailers had a huge challenge heading into the season, consumers were hibernating... no one was spending, sales were down,” says Scott Krugman, VP of PR at the National Retail Federation (NRF). “Retailers had to get the message out that it was safe to shop again.”
The NRF reported that 172 million people visited stores and Web sites over Black Friday weekend, up from 142 million in 2007, and individuals spent an average of 7.2% more than they did last year. ShopperTrak RCT reported preliminary sales for Black Friday at $10.6 billion, a 3% increase over 2007.
However, some suggest that the Black Friday sales don't predict holiday traffic, but only how hungry consumers are for a bargain this year. NRF data, compiled by BIGresearch, noted that more than half of the weekend's shoppers went to a discount store, and the association predicts a meager increase of 2.2% in overall holiday sales.
Combined with a short season – 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas – communications pros working in retail are facing immense challenges and competition over the next three weeks as they work to build on the Black Friday momentum.
“The environment is extremely promotional,” says Krugman. “If you're not reaching out to your customer on a regular basis, your competition will be more than happy to do so.”
Kmart has generated local and national coverage, particularly because of its layaway program and value-based approach. Tom Aiello, division VP of PR for Sears Holdings Corp., Kmart's parent company, says part of its success was starting press outreach earlier than it ever had, as well as listening to customers and responding with a timely message.
“It was really fundamental, solid public relations,” he says. “Simply looking at what's unique for Kmart... looking at where the consumers heads are... those points we really try to own. Now all of sudden, it's kind of hip to be frugal.”
Kmart also used media tours, third-party spokespeople, and kept its PR team staffed over the Black Friday weekend, Aiello adds.
Brian Lucas, senior manger of PR at Best Buy, says his team, working with MS&L, gave reporters pre-Black Friday store tours to demonstrate its preparedness. “If you don't know what to look for, you just see a mob,” he says. “The other thing we want to shine a light on is Black Friday as a tradition... People actually
enjoy camping out... They like the excitement.”
Going forward, Best Buy plans to “get our ‘blue shirts' out talking to the media... [explaining] that we'll help them spend their money wisely,” says Lucas.
Andrea Morgan, EVP of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, which handles the Sears Holdings account, says it will continue to try to bring a unique news hook to the media, jumping from layaway to Black Friday to Cyber Monday, and “Now let's look at other ways... last- minute shopping [or] gift cards.” She also says that Sears' commitment to the military-focused program “Heroes at Home” can help humanize their message.
MaryLee Sachs, Hill & Knowlton's US chairman, agrees that a cause can help your message stand out this season, as well as tapping into customer loyalty.
“Retail is such a personal thing; it's so predicated on the store experience,” she says, adding that working closely with core customers to give them something beyond the big discounts will be important. And the “internal comms piece and motivation piece [are] critical,” Sachs explains, given the number of temporary staff hired during the holidays.
“It's definitely about reaching the consumer directly – wherever you can intercept them, whether it's going to the streets, e-mails,” adds Morgan. “You have to surround the shopper with your message.”