The CX Angle Podcast: Solving Customer Experience for Black Friday

customer experience podcast series

We are in the midst of a Customer Experience (CX) revolution and customers are demanding an enhanced experience.  In this episode of The CX Angle, itelligence Corporate Communication Manager, Jeremy Cross, and Customer Experience Account Executive, Ryan Kubec, discuss the evolution of one of the biggest shopping days of the year, and how it is a disaster from a customer experience perspective.

Read the transcript below or listen to the podcast.

(Jeremy Cross) Welcome back to another episode of the CX Angle podcast. My name is Jeremy Cross and, as always, I’m joined by my colleague, Ryan Kubec. Ryan, how are you doing today?

(Ryan Kubec) I’m doing all right. Jeremy, how are you?

(Jeremy Cross) I’m fine. So in today’s episode, we’re going to focus on Black Friday. Black Friday is coming up in a couple of weeks, and we got into a conversation about, here is a day that has truly evolved over the course of our lifetimes. It has evolved from being a single day of shopping to becoming more of a month-long or holiday season event. Really what it signifies anymore, that you have something such as Black Friday, I would categorize as the epitome of bad. It is a horrible customer experience when it comes to retail.

I mean, everything else, if this happened any other time of the year, we wouldn’t put up with it. But for one day, for one day or for the weekend, we will put up with it. And so we wanted to dive into some thoughts that we had on, what are companies doing to potentially alleviate this? How have we seen this shifting? What does the data say behind it when it comes down to how shoppers are reacting to Black Friday in a new era of online shopping and hybrid shopping, of being in store and having online deals? And what does all this look like?

So, Ryan, what comes to mind when you think of Black Friday?

(Ryan Kubec) A mix of emotions. I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s kind of the epitome of the anti-customer experience. Can you imagine if there was a store where every single day of the year it was jam packed inside, lines were super long, people were fighting over the product — the retailers might like it initially and be like, wow, it would be great to have that many people. But how quickly would people leave and go shop somewhere else?

So I wonder if what’s driving some of this is that the initial allure of those big door-buster sales that we saw over the last 10 to 15 years that have been popular are kind of dying off. Now, I think that’s because the experience is so bad. And you see the videos on the news of people getting in fights and people getting trampled when they finally open the doors. And it kind of brings out the worst in people around the holiday season when people are trying to have better thoughts.

So I think that may be what’s driving that now we’re seeing it spread out so you’re not having all the focus on just Black Friday. I think that’s actually better than trying to have everything done on one day. And I know myself, I avoid going to the store that day. I try to stay in. And I wonder if the retailers are saying, hey, we need to find a way to change that, because people who want to get these deals are just staying home and they’re buying everything from Amazon.

(Jeremy Cross)  So if we look at Black Friday — a little anecdotal history of Black Friday here — I can recall growing up to where my aunts would get up in the morning and go out on Black Friday … and they’d get up at 4:00 a.m. to shop at 5:00 a.m. And that seemed ungodly early, but that was what you did. Some people, I think, then the trend became camping out. You’d camp out for these deals for days on end to get the best deals on Black Friday.

And then I remember retailers — my wife and I were living in Washington, D.C. and one of the local malls there … and this is going back to 2008, I believe, the malls there were open at midnight. So it went from being just early morning Black Friday to stores opening at midnight. And I recall going out with her before we had children, and we went out and we shopped all evening. And we capped it off by getting our first Blackberries at Best Buy early morning on Black Friday. And that was the shift. The shift came from just being Black Friday to being, OK, midnight.

And then it started to creep over into retail, opening up on the evening of Thanksgiving. Hey, go ahead, celebrate your holiday with your family and then start coming out here for deals. And they almost gamified it to where you could come out for a certain set of deals on Thanksgiving by time slots, okay, at this time these deals are going to be available. Or when you used to wait for the local paper to come out so you could see all of the Black Friday ads. And it was a game; it was truly a game. And it was, I think, wrapped around the experience.

And I think now — I read an article in the last few weeks — there are stores now that are saying, hey, we’re going to remain closed on Thanksgiving. It’s shifting back, where I think there were a decent number of retail outlets that were saying, now we’re going to be open on Thanksgiving, they’re now saying, “You know what? No, we’re going to close on Thanksgiving. We’ll see you on Black Friday like normal.” Some of those being — I’m looking at a list here — Costco and Home Depot and Lowe’s and Sam’s Club show up on this list and, At Home, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Barnes & Noble, IKEA.

(Ryan Kubec) Yeah, bigger retailers where you’d expect people to go buy gifts for Christmas or whatever holiday they’re celebrating.

(Jeremy Cross) Exactly. You know, clothing stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s; places that likely will be pretty busy on Black Friday. These are places that have said, hey, we’re going to close on Thanksgiving. We’re not going to go there.

And the data backs it up. Actually, there is an article I’m looking at right now, and this is citing a Wall Street Journal article that, in 2018, store traffic fell as much as 9 percent over 2017. And there certainly has been a shift. There’s a shift that has taken place, and it’s going back to what you’re saying, we’re spending more time buying online. We’re not going out for this horrible experience that most people would rather avoid. And we’re buying at different times. And I think that’s one of the things retailers are doing. What do you think?

(Ryan Kubec) Yeah, the closing on Thanksgiving, it’s really a win-win for everyone. The buying season really does start now on November 1st and probably goes through Christmas Eve, which used to be the biggest shopping day of the year. It was always Christmas Eve. Because, one, the employees don’t want to be there; they want to be spending time with their families. And then from a consumer perspective, you also don’t want to be at a store on a holiday that is typically associated with spending time with your family.

So I think it puts the consumers in a weird spot when you say, hey, here’s this thing that your parents really wanted to get and it’s a good deal, so come get it … but you’ve got to get it at five o’clock on Thursday. You know, to say, no, come get it tomorrow or come get it anytime, we’re going to run Black Friday all week.

So the retailers — and I don’t know if this has been intentional — my guess would be that it was intentional. They’ve taken a look at how bad that experience was when everything was all loaded up on one day. And then they tried to bleed it into Thanksgiving itself. And they said, you know, let’s pump the brakes, let’s spread this out over the course of a few weeks. Which, actually, when you spread out that buying season, profits and revenue typically go up rather than bottlenecking into one or two days. And then I think in general that improves the customer experience, as well, from just being in the store or not having to leave your family because you feel like you’re going to miss out on the deal of the day.

(Jeremy Cross) So even going to, I’d say, a few years, the best deals aren’t happening on Black Friday anymore. Sales are starting earlier and earlier; Amazon is upstaging Black Friday by getting you to go on Amazon and to buy at different times. Cyber Monday — people are waiting for the deals on Cyber Monday. And so this whole event of Black Friday — again, the day where most people will want to avoid these stores, avoid the customer experience of Black Friday — retailers are, I believe, realizing this and shifting. And they’re not wanting for sales. They’re just rethinking customer experience.

And, you know, I’ve been to Target on a Black Friday before. I don’t think I’ve ever been first thing in the morning; I’ve been later in the day, and it looks like a war zone. I mean, it’s just absolutely things everywhere. Staging in the middle of the store that once had $125 TV door-busters (that are really $125 TVs) and it looks as if it were a retail war zone. Absolute mess. I don’t know why in the world you would want to go out into that. But again, we’ve talked about this — is that for some, it’s the experience, it’s their own tradition and experience around it that they like getting up with friends and family. And it’s an event that they attend. But from the actual retail customer experience side of things, there’s been a huge shift in how we purchase for the holiday season. And it’s going to continue to evolve.

(Ryan Kubec) Yeah, and it would be interesting to see, and some retailers may do this, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this in the next few years, sitting down and focusing and saying, how do we provide the most ideal customer experience for Black Friday? And whether that’s through an app where you buy online, or you reserve your spot in line, or you make sure that you have enough quantities so people who want to buy those things, can. And then advertise to that. You know, I’m picturing the commercial right now — a split screen or a cut back-and-forth of the doors breaking down, people getting trampled, the whole herd of people running into a store, versus someone with their best friend or their sibling or their spouse getting in the car, grabbing a cup of coffee and just calmly walking past the chaos, going and picking up the stuff that’s already been preset aside for them.

So you’re able to almost give them the experience they get from sitting at home on their couch, ordering stuff on Amazon or some other online retailer. And you’re able to put that back into a brick and mortar store if they were to focus on, how do we improve that end-to-end customer experience. Because like we talked about this whole time, the way it has been is just a nightmare, unless you really love that kind of stuff. But waiting in super long lines, it’ll be interesting to see if retailers are able to find that customer journey through Black Friday and get that to where it would be ideal and attractive for people to go out and experience that store environment again.

(Jeremy Cross) It’s surprising that some stores haven’t focused on the event aspect of it, though. Not the sales aspect, but turning it into an actual event. And there are some stores, I think, that are set up for this hybrid that you’re talking about. Target would be one that comes to mind. I mean, Target has their Cartwheel app, they already have worked to blur the lines between focusing on the in-store experience plus the online experience. I could see Target going into this space very easily. Or, again, get people to come out, turn it into an event of sorts. And then whether it be through the online system, you have this lottery to eliminate people rushing. You know, you’re still going to have the sales, you eliminate the people getting hurt, trampled as they try to go through these sales.

(Ryan Kubec) Well, we also talked, I think in our first episode, about how people will pay more for a better experience. You could even have a VIP-like TSA pre-check; you know, a Disney fast-pass lane where people would sign up and they’d pay X amount, the same way you sign up for Amazon Prime. It isn’t free, but you get a better experience for it, so it’s worth the value.

You know, if there were retailers or something that say, hey, we’ve got a VIP fast-pass, this app you have to sign up for and they generate additional revenue, provide a better customer experience, and maybe they have separate lanes for people and are able to guarantee a certain amount of quantities because you can reserve it via this app. So you’re not having to get out there and camp out all night. And you know, we both live in the Midwest, and a lot of times it’s snowing that day. So you’re able to improve that customer experience using technology and actually focusing on what does that customer journey look like?

(Jeremy Cross) I think that’s a great. I mean, that’s a very intriguing point of view. Would you pay if you had the ability to purchase a VIP pass for Black Friday to access certain deals or maybe it was through an existing affiliation. So, for example, I know that Amazon and Kohl’s, for example, have a partnership where you can now take your Amazon returns to a Kohl’s department store in some situations, and Kohl’s will take care of packaging it up for you and getting it back to Amazon. They’re acting as that middleman now. You know, if you had an Amazon partnership and you were going to shop at Kohl’s on Black Friday, if you had your Prime membership, does that get you special access. Or if I’m Target and I sell a VIP Black Friday experience where maybe there are other things that are on sale, better deals … or, as you’re suggesting, you don’t even have to; you just walk past the lines. Yeah, it’s the fast-pass at Kings Island where you get a chance at the amusement park to walk past the line.

(Ryan Kubec) Yeah. And then you can market that as being an event that people go out and it’s not the worst of humanity fighting over the hottest toy. It’s you going out with your family or spouse or whoever and being able to enjoy some of that experience, buying gifts for loved ones and things like that and make it more pleasant. And, you know, I guess kind of the same way that when you’re able to skip the line to get on rides at amusement parks or skip the lines to get a better experience during travel. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens in the next few years with any retailers trying to provide a better experience, even if it’s for an additional charge.

(Jeremy Cross) And I wonder if their mindset is there. I wonder when they think of Black Friday, is this just a logistics nightmare of making sure you have the appropriate number of people staffed, where you’re not thinking above and beyond. You’re still thinking sales, and you’re thinking mobile, and you’re pushing people to the mobile experience. It depends on where the data falls, I suppose, and what they are really focusing on. But it’s intriguing. It’s intriguing to think that you could take that Black Friday experience and make it into a truly VIP [experience], and would people pay more for it? And I’m sure that they would if you had a certain number of VIP [passes] for each store that you could sell and that gave you special access. People would pay more for it if they knew that they could have a better customer experience.

(Ryan Kubec) Yeah, I’m even wondering if a third-party vendor would coordinate that the same way. You know, CLEAR at the airport is not run through TSA; that’s a third-party company that they manage and they promote and they are very aggressive in their sales tactics. But would there be some third-party vendor that says, hey, we’re going to partner with Kohl’s and Target and Barnes & Noble or whatever other retailers? And if you sign up for this VIP package or whatever, you now have access to go through the fast lane at all of these places. And you can go and rank your top five deals that you’re looking to get and you reserve them as long as there’s quantity when you go hit your reserve button.

So, yeah, I work in e-commerce and I love the fact that people are staying home and buying stuff online, because it gives me more of a needs case when I’m working with companies. But if retailers are looking at that traffic coming through the stores — you said it dropped, what, nine percent in a year? Is that because the experience is so bad? If it is, is there a way to fix that experience?

(Jeremy Cross) Well, it’s interesting to think about. And like I said, we’re a few weeks out from Black Friday. So I guess our question is: are you, our listeners, the type that goes out, and do you have your own Black Friday tradition? Do you go camping? Do you avoid it altogether? What are your thoughts?

More importantly, would you pay for a special-access VIP experience when it comes down to your holiday shopping that you got a chance to use each year that provided you with special perks? So interesting to think about. Go ahead, shoot us a message. Our email is listed here in the show notes. Let us know, are you planning on heading out on Black Friday? What are your thoughts about what we’ve been talking about today?

Ryan, before we close out, any final thoughts from you?

(Ryan Kubec) No. Just wanted to wish all of our listeners Happy Holidays for whatever they celebrate, enjoy spending time with your family, and avoid the chaos if you can.

(Jeremy Cross) Sounds good. Thank you. And we’ll see you next time.

Listen to more podcasts:

Episode 1: Why Talk about Customer Experience?

Episode 2: CX Winners: Domino’s

Episode 3:  Barriers that Impact Customer Experience

Episode 4: CRM Pitfalls and Recommendations

Episode 5: AI, Smart Speakers and Virtual Assistants

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