Shopping, anyone?

Posted on November 25, 2016. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Happy Black Friday. Which is another way to say the commercialization of Christmas has saturated every shopping day right up to the pumpkin-pie portion of Thanksgiving evening.

Which, in actuality, means that the general public’s impatience about saving an almighty dollar has driven retailers to compete in gladiator fashion a full month before Santa comes.

The routes by which their sales messages can reach consumers have never been more innovative and numerous—or more insipidly exploited. The “doorbuster” specials that inspired shoppers to wait in lines at 3 a.m. on previous Black Fridays have been digitized by some large chains, such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy, which offered them on websites earlier in the week.

Last year, for the first time ever, online Black Friday shoppers outnumbered in-store shoppers, 103 million to 102 million.

Does that mean that 205 million Americans, of our 310 million population, bought gifts that day? No, but clearly many people accomplished the feat of doing both.

This year, the National Federation of Retailers (NFR) expects 137.4 million Americans to take advantage of Christmas sales over the Thanksgiving weekend. Cyber Monday projections are up this year, too, and the NFR predicts nearly four out of 10 consumers (36 percent) will shop online that day.

I chuckle to remember, way back before the dot-com bubble burst, when some noteworthy advertising prognosticator had read the Internet tea leaves and pronounced with solemn assuredness, “print is dead.”

I’d like to show him the bundle of circulars that arrived in my Sunday newspaper—during this most digital era the world has ever known—a full work week in advance of the shopping-blitz bonanza today has become. No fewer than 15 printed promotional pieces fell out of the paper, totaling more than 180 ink-on-paper pages. Six of them explicitly mentioned Black Friday, and several others promoted Thanksgiving Day open hours.

The retailers ranged from electronics to groceries to clothing to homewares to pharmacies to general merchandisers and even included a telecommunications provider. A few had holiday sales going all week long, with a couple promoting doorbuster deals as early as Wednesday.

Every single circular was part of a major retail chain, meaning they appeared in newspapers all across the nation, which suggests a significant printing investment. And that’s just a sampling of one Sunday. It does not include the many-splendored catalogs appearing daily in my mailbox.

One in particular, from legendary direct mailer L.L. Bean, has the heft and bulk of the old phonebooks of yore.

Whatever print advertising is, it’s far, far from dead. That observation, however, in no way nullifies the notion that online commerce isn’t flourishing as if on digital steroids.

With consumers possessing and using more devices than ever to access the Internet and its online advertising clearinghouses, retailers rarely miss a marketing trick.

L.L. Bean, for example, pops up all over my Facebook, as does ebay and Amazon Prime.

That’s because I have not only visited those sites online, but also actually purchased something. And, like more and more people, the majority of my online interaction now occurs on my mobile phone rather than my laptop computer.

The data gathering, organizing and archiving that goes on from any Internet purchase is more than mind-boggling.

Every visit to every site is source-tracked, every click of a button or menu monitored, every movement of a cursor measured. Purchases are analyzed by much more than price point, and used to predict corollary interests and prospective cross-selling that wildly exceeds the obvious.

If I bought a dress shirt online, naturally I might also need a new tie. But analytical algorithms can draw incalculably more probabilities from my purchase about the kind of work I might do, what my average disposable income might be, even what hobbies I might have a proclivity for.

Major brands with the means and money have it all down to a science, but even local advertisers can benefit from their theories, principles and mindsets.

To some it all can seem very creepy in a Big Brother sort of way. But in many ways, it’s merely a modern twist on the old practice of merchandisers knowing their customers.

What is more Mayberry than a shopkeeper remembering a customer’s preference based on previous purchases, and then using that knowledge to provide a superior shopping experience that anticipates a buyer’s need or desire?

Neighborhood store owners knew when a child had his eye on a certain toy, or a mother lingered longingly over a new dress or hat. As often as not, they helped make those dream gifts come true.

That’s what computers allow savvy online retailers to do so masterfully, and some even figure out a way to deliver a virtual pat-on-the-shoulder invitation to “come back real soon.”

In fact, when done well it’s an example of technology serving humanity at its finest: matching a consumer search or need with a timely and satisfactory solution.

So on this black and cyber Friday, may your selections be in stock, your savings big and your checkouts swift so you still have time to savor leftovers and football.

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