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Can Black Friday Compete Against More Personal Year-Round Commerce?

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Customers prefer calling the shots to standing in the cold

Is Black Friday becoming less relevant? It seems as if the biggest shopping day of the year is losing some of its appeal, at least according to the recent JDA Consumer Survey, which finds that 47% of shoppers plan to skip Black Friday 2016 and 73% say they prefer to do their holiday bargain hunting outside of the season itself.

The idea of lining up in the cold for eye-catching deals on big-screen TVs does seem almost quaint in the era of conversational commerce and the growing expectation from consumers that not only should they be able to browse and buy whenever and wherever they want and access the best deals with a click, but that brands should be creating personalized experiences across retail touchpoints to serve them more intuitively. Not exactly something you’re going to find huddled outside the door of a suburban mall at 4:00 AM on Nov 25, is it?

In fact, right before Black Friday 2015, Wired was predicting that technology, particularly the ability of brands to leverage shoppers’ data to improve customer experience throughout the year would be what ultimately signaled that Black Friday in its current incarnation may not endure much longer. As Roei Ganzarski writes:

“Already, the different players all along the chain from where a good is made to where it gets in a consumer’s hands are taking advantage of this proliferation of data to become more efficient. Delivery companies, manufacturers, retailers, and distributors all have a wider window onto consumer behavior that lets them trim the excess from their operations. The next step is to get all of the links in this chain operating in sync according to insights generated by this data, allowing everyone to work in concert to become more efficient—and profitable. That’s what’s starting to happen in retail now, and that’s what will make Black Friday a thing of the past.”

The bottom line math is compelling -- engaged customers buy more frequently and spend more money than the unengaged. If brands are able to use their growing body of customer data to increase engagement year-round, the need to bet big on Black Friday as a one-day sales extravaganza declines dramatically.

As is the case in many disruptions to the retail paradigm, Amazon is taking the lead in pushing the technological envelope in pursuit of a customer engagement experience par excellence. In addition to raising the bar when it comes to shipping and delivery, the ecommerce behemoth is celebrating the two-year anniversary of unveiling its voice-activated smart assistant, Alexa, which can now execute over 4000 tasks, including ordering products both specific (‘Bose SoundSport Wireless Headphones’) and generic (‘paper towels’) directly from Amazon. Amazon sees voice shopping via Alexa as both different from and more personal than online shopping and the natural evolution of customer engagement.

Keeping pace with Amazon when it comes to disrupting traditional shopping patterns is none other than Facebook, which has opened up its Facebook Messenger -- it boasts 900M users -- for brands to develop chatbots that operate within the app and offer a highly relevant channel for these brands to engage with customers. Big names including Domino’s and 1-800-Flowers have already jumped aboard. Personal shopper chatbots aren’t restricted to Facebook, however, with retailers such as H&M and Sephora launching bots on the Kik platform. These automated personal assistants can answer questions about products, help customers place orders and even remember the content of a shopper’s previous conversations with them. Here at Linc, our own ServiceBot platform helps fast-growing fashion brands like Taylor Stitch keep customers informed of their order status and assists shoppers with returns, exchanges and even reordering.

When Black Friday 2016 rolls around in a couple of weeks, there will still be plenty of eager shoppers stampeding through the doors of any given big box store, but the reality is that how customers shop and how they engage with brands is fundamentally shifting — and quickly. In a couple of years, voice-activated personal assistants, intelligent chatbots and personalized, contextual interactions with our favorite brands will be the holiday shopping norm, not standing in line the day after Thanksgiving. For the most forward-thinking brands, this is already the paradigm they’re embracing and scaling to. For example, outdoor retailer REI recognized that the type of customers it serves don’t want to spend their Black Friday combing the aisles for deals, so it launched its award-winning #OptOutside initiative in 2015, where it chose not to open on the holiest of shopping days and instead encouraged employees and customers to spend time with family outdoors. To date, over 1.3M Americans have pledged to #OptOutside instead of opting into bricks and mortar buying. REI also enjoyed a 26% boost in traffic over the Thanksgiving weekend and the company closed 2015 with a 23% year-over-year increase in digital sales. For other retailers that don’t want to be left holding the (empty) bag, the time to focus on customer engagement is now and, unlike Black Friday itself, delivering those experiences is a 365-day/year commitment.

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