Lessons in UX: Who wins Black Friday? The retailer who provides the best shopping experience

Yes, I was out at 4 AM on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, in order to get some of the “door-buster” sale items retailers were offering to shoppers who hit the stores early. Yes, sometimes I am not terribly bright.

I bring this up because, besides the opportunity to let my readers know I am often lacking in common sense, this sojourn into Retail Hell allowed me to observe how different retailers and on-line merchants approached this first milestone of the holiday shopping season, and how (as I have stated ad nauseum) that experience matters.

First, an observation… in previous years big retailers like Wal-Mart sent cease and desist letters to sites such as bfads.net when those sites previewed their post-Thanksgiving ads weeks before they were “released.” This year, Wal-Mart not only allowed the sites to promote their sales but even partnered with them, finally realizing that those sites were free promotional vehicles. Lesson #1: If users aren’t aware of what you are offering, they will not have any interest in acquiring it.

Speaking of the 800-lb. gorilla of retail, Wal-Mart very smartly provided maps through their web site that allowed users to lookup their local stores to locate where the 10 big “door-buster” sales items were located. In previous years users had no idea where to go to get these special items, and this idea (combined with store workers who have printouts of where all the other sale items were located) helped with crowd control. Lesson #2: Be available to help your customers find what they are looking for.

Wal-Mart also made sure that most of their big discounted items were also offered online, allowing users who did not want to fight crowds to order online. Target, however, did not court much favor with shoppers as many of their door busters were not available on their website for purchase. Comments on deal sites such as fatwallet.com were near-unanimous in their criticism of the Target site. Lesson #3: A shopper is a shopper, no matter if they are on-line or off-line – offer the same sale items in both places.

In some instances e-commerce web sites crumbled under the weight of the traffic. Newegg.com was non-responsive under the intense server load of thousands of users hitting the site to get the specials they were offering. Lesson #4: your on-line experience is only as good as your web servers allow it to be.

Finally, item availability was key: if you do a “bait-and-switch” with customers, and only have three of the big sale items available, these customers will leave bitter and angry and you may lose their “good faith” forever. The smart retailers had enough stock to deal with demand, though it is never an exact science. Lesson #5. Be up-front about how many sale items you have to level-set expectations and hopes.
One last thought: I went shopping to primarily pick up deeply discounted DVDs and blu-ray movies, to pad my already-extensive collection. I was able to get many movies for as low as $2, and some recent new releases for $9. This, and other extensive mark-downs, were great for me and others who took advantage of such sales, but I think that many retails may learn to regret these discounts.

In a down economy, retailers have lowered their prices in order to get as many of the available purchasing dollars as they can. But, just as experience matters, expectations matter as well, and I think that deep discounts set a new price “baseline” that many consumers will now expect to get all the time. I know that in the future I will think twice about buying a new video release the week it comes out… if there is any likelihood that I can pick it up weeks later for half-off.