Black Friday and Cyber Monday Just Artifacts of a Dying Phenomenon

'No-Sale' Retailing Is the Future

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The TV news ritual is so predictable: folks lining up at storefronts in the middle of the night (nobody you know, of course) madly grabbing discounted items (hopefully not trampling one another to death, as happened at least once, while a few guns have been pulled), and then pundits passing judgment on whether or not Black Friday's selling bodes well for retailing in particular and our economy in general.

One thing we won't hear mentioned is that the annual event is an artifact of a dying cultural phenomenon . . . even as the silly exercise of Cyber Monday tries to argue otherwise.

I know, everyone loves a sale. We're genetically predisposed to respond to price cuts. Sales events have been a staple of retailing since the first promotions in the bazaars of ancient Sumer. It's why J.C. Penney's "no-sale'" strategy is such a failure.

No, not so and nope.

A sale price makes up in discount what a brand proposition lacks in value. It isn't that people love sales as much as they don't love regular prices, at least not enough to get out to stores and websites to purchase stuff. So retailers slashing prices over one weekend in hopes of making entire annual goals is a horribly frightening thought. Many shopper interviews at stores in the wee hours of Black Friday gave the impression that they were robbing stores that otherwise robbed them.

Beyond resetting prices, sales can be useful for providing "added" value to customers when combined with other benefits, like private showings and lay-a-way plans (such activities are on the rise these days). But the opposite happened this past weekend; retailers spent the value of their relationships by making customers wait outside for hours in the dead of night, then jostle and shove past one another to get their hands on limited discounted SKUs. Store employees weren't all too happy to be on call. Thank goodness nobody died this year, though a good number of folks went home without the special items they'd been "promised" above the fine print in ad circulars.

Imagine if the headline this week was that regular customers were rewarded for their year-long loyalty with first dibs, better prices and guaranteed availability?

Great brands don't rely on sales much anyway. We've known for a long time that the concept of a "no-sale" store or brand works (my grandfather was a men's apparel retailer in Chicago and wrote about it in the early 1920s). It worked for Saturn cars until GM blew up the division's independence. It still works for Apple (despite its lame acquiescence to Friday's frenzy in its latest misstep since introducing the iPad mini). Historically, luxury brands made a point of maintaining prices as a direct expression of consistent value.

So why is Penney's no-sale strategy faltering? The company has sabotaged itself with dumb marketing execution, giving us nonsense about branded stores within the larger store as a new shopping experience (offering brands that are discounted at other outlets) and nothing about cost or services. Without offering the added value of truth, it leaves consumers without anything to do but miss discounts. Bringing sales back this past weekend only accentuates the suspicion that the no-sale approach was just another gimmick.

Anyway, the internet is busy leveling all of these practices, Cyber Monday notwithstanding. Add community and mobile access and you get awfully close to instantaneous price matching, transparent product availability and consistent shopping experiences. Even if retailers want to rely on sales to energize their businesses, it will get increasingly hard to do so. You can already see it in the steady encroachment of earlier openings, for instance. Deals can be and are got online every day, not just today. Cyber Monday is a blip, not an event.

"No-sale" retailing is the future, or perhaps "always sale" is a better way of thinking about it. It might be empowering to brands and beneficial to shoppers if retailers both offline and on could figure out how to get all 52 weeks of the year to contribute to their shared success, not just one weekend. I think they're going to have to.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy and co-author of "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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