Battle of Black Friday: shops get creative in duel for dollars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 November, 2017, 12:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 November, 2017, 12:18am

The photo op with Santa Claus has long been a holiday mainstay for American children. But this year, shopping centres in several states are scheduling glamour shots for man’s best friend.

As the Christmas shopping season kicks into high gear on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, portraits of St. Nick with a family’s beloved dog are just one way shops are trying to attract customers in the face of exploding e-commerce.

Bricks-and-mortar stores have expanded their bag of tricks – and become increasingly bold – as they look to lure shoppers who might otherwise be happy to stay on the couch and pick up gifts while still in their pyjamas.

The flagship Bloomingdale’s in New York has held yoga classes and Nordstrom has displayed Tesla cars near men’s suits section.

A number of shops now ply visitors with food and drink.

For the holiday shopping season, malls are hosting gingerbread decorating sessions, visits from Dr. Seuss’s Grinch and ugly Christmas jumper nights.

Temporary ice skating rinks and magical winter decor are also being used to draw in customers.

Wal-Mart plans to throw more than 20,000 “holiday parties” at which children can pose for “selfies with Santa”.

“All of these retailers are desperate to get people into their stores,” said analyst Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, who had a word of caution about all the promotions: “Whether they work or not is open to debate.”

Most experts predict a solid holiday shopping season, with IHS Markit projecting overall sales growth of 4.2 per cent to about US$685 billion, according to executive director Chris Christopher.

Online sales are expected to account for 18.3 per cent of holiday sales this year, up from 16.8 per cent last year, IHS says.

Surveys show that creating a festive holiday atmosphere is one way to prompt consumers to pocket their smartphones for a few hours and hit the shopping centre.

About a third of consumers said they enjoyed holiday shopping as a family tradition and 23 per cent said they most enjoy holiday decorations, said a National Retail Federation survey.

Tourist Karen Boyd, who was visiting New York this week from Palo Alto, California, said she expects to do half of her shopping online and half of it in stores this year.

“The years I’ve done 100 per cent online, it doesn’t feel like you’ve done your holiday shopping!” she said near Saks Fifth Avenue’s famed holiday window display as Christmas carols played in the background.

As e-commerce has grabbed bigger market share, chains like Target and Gap have invested heavily in smartphone apps and sophisticated “big data” programmes to target consumers and price most effectively.

Upscale department store Nordstrom is offering 24-hour kerbside pickup at a handful of shops for nine days over Christmas.

“Customers increasingly want to shop where, how and when they choose and 24/7 kerbside pickup is one service we’re offering to support their experience,” said Shea Jensen, senior vice-president of customer experience at Nordstrom.

Department store Kohl’s is taking to heart a common motto – if you can’t beat them, join them.

Kohl’s will accept returns of goods bought on Amazon at its shops in Chicago and Los Angeles – and will pack and ship the unpackaged items back to the online behemoth at no charge.

The hope is that Amazon shoppers will linger and buy a few items from Kohl’s.

“We have a really very simple, straightforward objective here, and that is driving traffic is the number one priority we have as a company,” chief executive Kevin Mansell said earlier this month.

For Saunders, while doggy photos with Santa might attract pet lovers, other initiatives are less inviting. For him, the real issue is on the product side.

“A lot of these retailers aren’t delivering what people want,” he said.

David Simon, chief executive of the mall giant Simon Property Group, said shops should shake up their approach to customer service, highlighting Apple’s attentiveness to customers and sleek store design.

“I think if they did that in a more comprehensive way through checkouts service, styling … they would see a pickup in their in-store sales,” Simon said.

Shopper Melin Ghotan said “bad customer service” had marred her recent experience at a video game shop – an salesperson had balked when the Los Angeles mother asked for a second shopping bag for the items.

“I’d have rather bought it online,” she said.