How Analytics Forever Changed Holiday Shopping

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There was a time not that long ago, really, when savvy shoppers waited eagerly for the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday—so named because it was allegedly the day that retailers’ ledgers went into the black— traditionally marked the beginning of the holiday shopping season and the very moment that retailers unveiled their most enticing promotions; door busters and limited-quantity specials represented something of a starting pistol in the consumer’s race to find the best gifts for the best price.

But is this still true today? Last year, a number of retailers chose to open their doors early—on Thanksgiving Day, to be precise. In fact, IBM’s Digital Analytics Benchmark showed that online sales on Thanksgiving Day were up a whopping 39 percent over the prior year. Consumers weren’t just curious about sales on a sacred national holiday, they were taking out their wallets in droves, and in so doing, they forever changed retailing practices, effectively making Thanksgiving Day the first, big shopping day of the season.

The story behind the emergence of Thanksgiving Day as a shopping powerhouse comes down to trusting what your customers are telling you through their online behavior; at its most basic, it’s a story about identifying and then seizing an emerging trend to get closer to the customer. IBM began reporting a couple of years ago that we were witnessing what we referred to as “the post-pie purchase” on Thanksgiving. People seemed to be hopping online to do a little shopping as they finished their Thanksgiving meals. This phenomenon started on the East Coast, around six in the evening and spread like a wave across the entire country toward the West Coast. That’s what our Digital Analytics Benchmark showed us and that’s what we shared with our customers; we challenged them to consider what their customers were telling them by shopping online on Thanksgiving Day itself. Was there an opportunity to extend the online shopping experience to offline, brick-and-mortar stores?

To me, this story illustrates that investments in technology—in this case, in real-time analytics to spot changing consumer shopping habits—are not simply about the technology itself. They represent investments in your customers; and by the way, for a fine and nuanced read on technology investments and your customers, consider Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become, by MIT Sloan School Research fellow, Michael Schrage). Taken to their best possible outcome, technology investments can in some way form the foundation of your customer advocacy programs. Analytics data is a complete waste of time and money if you are not prepared to act on it; on the other hand, you can uncover utterly transformational moments for your business and for your customers. That’s what happened on Thanksgiving.

Let’s see where the journey leads us this year. As for me, I’m betting big on mobile.

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