November 23, 2005

Is Black Friday Secrecy a Relic of the Past?

By Evan Schuman, Ziff Davis Internet

Opinion: It was inevitable, but several Web sites have popped up—like the thermometer timer on a turkey—to announce to the world Black Friday retail specials before the retailers want them to. Is this nature's way of telling the retailers to grow up?

Old ways die hard, and there's no industry that is more resistant to change than retail.

But the reality of big-time retail technology is that online and offline operations must be more than integrated; they must actively complement each other.

Each must make the most of its own strengths, with online delivering unparalleled selection, speed, convenience and software-enabled intuition; brick-and-mortars, on the other hand, must focus on the experience. Never before have cushy chairs and great cleaning people meant more.

One old standby that remains relevant despite the prevalence of clicks and bricks is the retail printed newspaper flier. It was even memorialized in that holiday classic "Miracle on 34th Street." (You gotta love a 1947 movie starring a single mother who serves by day as a senior executive of a national retail chain.)

The fliers themselves are not necessarily relics. They're quaint and do little harm. No, it's the secrecy around them that's out-of-date. Retailers are often so anxious that their special Black Friday deal be the best available that they take cold-war precautions to make sure the competition doesn't get wind of their offers.

However, a bunch of Web sites—including, and—have started getting tons of publicity for their sites, which do little other than publicize major retail's unannounced upcoming sales.

Alan Smolek, who runs when the 21-year-old isn't running his online marketing company from his Chicago apartment, said finding people willing to fink out the retailers is surprisingly easy.

Many of his tips come from people working in the printing plants where various fliers are produced, he said.

Publicity surrounding his site and others like it has sent page views flying. A typical day last year saw some 30,000 unique impressions a day, Smolek said, and that figure had climbed to "more than 200,000" earlier this week.

The success of sites like these points out the absurdity of trying to keep these sales secret. Or are they? The divulging sites are delivering a lot of great publicity to the retail sales, at a time when brick-and-mortars are thrilled for anything that attracts attention away from online.

Patricia Norins, the publisher of the Specialty Retail Report, said she thinks the retailers should welcome these sites. "It's kind of a PR opportunity," she said. "What's the difference if consumers hear about it five days in advance? It sounds like a phenomenal marketing opportunity for retailers who want to create some buzz."

Any sale that will only work if it's kept secret until the last minute is likely on fairly flimsy footing. People don't go to the mall for bargains (at least not on Black Friday), so retailers are toying with sales tactics that were more at home when Gimbels fought daily with Macy's.