Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Thanksgiving Were the Exclamation Points on a Stellar 2018 Holiday Season 

Author: By Andrew Lipsman

January 7, 2019

A popular narrative has emerged that Black Friday and Cyber Monday are less important to the holiday season because of “promotional bleed.” With holiday store decorations going up in October, discounts coming early and often, and the advent of new shopping holidays like Small Business Saturday, Green Monday and Free Shipping Day, these two events that used to be make or break for retailers have lost their luster.

The only problem: The narrative doesn’t match the reality.

In fact, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are more important than ever, and the 2018 holidays underscored that point.

To understand why, let’s look at how the holiday season performed. Final sales totals through December 31 aren’t in yet, but figures through late December paint a pretty complete picture of what we can expect.

Research from Mastercard SpendingPulse—which is based on aggregate sales activity in the Mastercard payments network, coupled with survey-based estimates for certain other payment forms, such as cash and check—reported total US retail spending from November 1 to December 24 of $850 billion, up 5.1% year over year—a six-year high. Meanwhile, ecommerce posted a 19.1% growth rate through Christmas.

“From shopping aisles to online carts, consumer confidence translated into holiday cheer for retail,” said Steve Sadove, senior advisor for Mastercard and former CEO and chairman of Saks Inc., in a statement. “By combining the right inventory with the right mix of online vs. in-store, many retailers were able to give consumers what they wanted via the right shopping channels.”

According to data from Adobe Analytics, which measures transactions from 80 of the top 100 US online retailers, reported similarly strong gains for ecommerce, with 17.8% growth through December 19 to $110.6 billion.

What accounts for this better-than-expected performance? Black Friday and Cyber Monday are two big reasons—but Thanksgiving Day is also making a case to be included in the conversation.

Unpacking the results from Adobe shows that these days performed well above the season benchmarks and bested Adobe’s already strong forecasts. Prior to the start of the season, Adobe predicted online sales growth of 16.5%, to $3.3 billion for Thanksgiving, 17.2%, to $5.9 billion for Black Friday, and 17.6%, to $7.8 billion for Cyber Monday.

The actual totals were higher: $3.7 billion on Thanksgiving, $6.2 billion on Black Friday, and $7.9 billion on Cyber Monday. The entire Cyber Five period jumped 23.3%, to $24.2 billion—nearly $1 billion above the initial forecast.

Cyber Monday remains by far the biggest spending day online—and could reach $10 billion in 2019—but it was the only day from the Cyber Five period to fall below 20% growth (albeit ever so slightly). Meanwhile, Black Friday continues to gain ecommerce momentum and is in a strong second place to Cyber Monday for online shopping, while remaining the No. 1 day for brick-and-mortar. It’s a big day for mobile shopping, making it the most important omnichannel shopping day of the year.

Perhaps most interesting is the impressive jolt of online sales on Thanksgiving Day. Once reserved for family, feasts and football, Thanksgiving has become a shopping holiday in its own right, thanks primarily to the emergence of mobile shopping and store openings on the actual holiday. It has consistently posted above-average growth rates in spending, but 2018’s gain of 28.0% was staggering. It may be that, after years of complaining about store openings ruining the Thanksgiving holiday, US consumers are getting over it and giving in to their desire to shop.

Polling from conducted by SurveyMonkey revealed a pronounced shift in Americans’ acceptance of Thanksgiving store openings, with the percentage strongly favoring it doubling over the past year, and the percentage strongly opposing it declining by roughly 8 percentage points.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that despite the supposed effects of “promotional bleed,” online sales are actually concentrating around Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Industry-watchers who continue to discount their importance to the holiday season aren’t paying close enough attention.