Black Friday Shoppers Hungry for New Experiences, New Tech

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Many consumers will rush to shopping malls and give their mobile devices a workout later this week.

Fifty-nine percent of the U.S. population, or 137.4 million shoppers, is expected to hunt for bargains over Black Friday weekend, according to new survey from the National Retail Federation.

The figures are up slightly from 58.7 percent, or 135.8 million shoppers, a year ago, with both surveys ranging from Thanksgiving Day through Small Business Saturday and Sunday after.

However, if the projection is on target and 137.4 million consumers so flood retail outlets, they would not be setting a record, said NRF spokesperson Ana Serafin Smith.

"In 2015, we reported 135.8 million," she told the E-Commerce Times. "In 2014, we reported 140 million, and in 2013, 140.3 million.

Seventy-four percent of consumers planned to shop on Black Friday, according to the survey, which Prosper Insights & Analytics conducted. Twenty-one percent planned to hit the mall on Thanksgiving Day, down from 22 percent a year ago. Thirty-six percent planned to shop on Cyber Monday, up from 34 percent a year ago.

A record 116 million Americans said they planned to buy high-tech gifts during Black Friday Week, a 10 point increase from a year ago, according to a study the Consumer Technology Association released last week.

Televisions once again topped the list, after a two-year lull. Laptops jumped two spots to come in second, followed by smartphones, and video game consoles and tablets.

Drones will have a strong showing, with 1.2 million units expected to sell over the holidays, representing a 112 percent jump from a year-ago, according to CTA projections. About 700,000 virtual reality headsets are expected to move off shelves, and 4.5 million units of 4K ultra high-definition TVs will find their way into living rooms.

Despite the surge in online traffic, shoppers still like to visit physical stores, said Steve Koenig, senior director of market research at CTIA.

"The vast majority of consumers do a little bit of both at holiday and during Black Friday week," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Stores often have products you can't buy online, and consumers remain wary of shipping delays and want to take their gifts home, Koenig observed.

Although some stores will open their doors on Thursday, that trend appears to have lost its momentum.

"Fewer stores are open this Thanksgiving than last year, but there are some determined retailers, like Macy's and Walmart," noted Nikki Baird, managing partner at RSR Research.

Thanksgiving may deliver a record US$2 billion in online sales, she told the E-Commerce Times, based on figures from Adobe Digital Insights.

That speaks to the likelihood that consumers will be more likely to browse online for sales rather than storm the shopping malls right after the pumpkin pie.

Walmart is putting its Black Friday deals on Walmart.com starting at 12:01 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. Its in-store sales will begin at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

Walmart has stocked its stores with 1.5 million televisions, almost 2 million tablets, and 3 million video games, it said. Featured items include a Philips 55-inch smart 4KTV for $298, and Walmart's exclusive Promark 3D Virtual Reality HD Drone for $99 -- a $49 savings.

"In terms of the holiday, we're feeling in good shape," said Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart U.S., during the company's third-quarter earnings call. "We're ready and willing -- and as always, we expect it to be competitive."

Walmart would add holiday helpers to help customers get through checkout lines faster, he said, and through collaboration with Marc Lore and the online team, it would make sure to have enough inventory on hand to expand the online merchandise assortment available for pickup.

With sales expected to hit record levels on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, retailers need to be concerned that they are able to handle site traffic, said David Jones, sales engineering director at Dynatrace.

"Retailers should be most concerned with the increased complexity of their sites and mobile applications," he told the E-Commerce Times, "because heavier and complex sites are much harder to manage and introduce greater operational risk, and could increase the likelihood that they'll buckle under the pressure of peak holiday shopping.

While much of the focus will be on e-commerce spending, there is still strong demand for the in-store experience, indicates a survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Eighty-one percent of the expected 150.7 million people Thanksgiving weekend shoppers likely would make purchases in physical brick-and-mortar stores, the group's annual Black Friday Consumer Survey shows.

When you include the online channels of the same physical retailers, the percentage increases to 95 percent.

Consumers want an integrated retail experience, the ICSC survey shows. For example, 37 percent of Thanksgiving shoppers planned to buy online and then pick up their purchases at a store. The average shopper planned to spend $413.50, with $115.50 going to dining and entertainment.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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