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Cyber Retail Makes Every Day ‘Black Friday’

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Christmas shopping markdowns are a national tradition. This year the bargains are coming right to your door.

The theme of the holiday shopping season in 2013 is the ruination of Thanksgiving by profit-starved retailers. The basic idea is that merchants are being forced to cut prices in a desperate gambit to capture elusive holiday shopping dollars.

"If our competition is in fact more promotional in the fourth quarter, we will be too," Best Buy (BBY) Chief Financial Officer Sharon McCollam grimly vowed on Tuesday, warning that the holiday discounting will hurt gross margins. Just hours later the king of all retail dropped the bomb on Best Buy and everyone else when Walmart (WMT) announced plans to start offering Black Friday prices on November 22nd.

Suddenly the story of the day was that the retailers were so desperate for revenue that they were going to start giving away products. “Walmart Touts $98 TV in Weakest Holiday Season Since ‘09” screamed a major media outlet, panicky spittle all but spewing off the page.

That's just silly. The retailers aren't warning on earnings, they're advertising. With smart phones and constant news cycles, the holiday season gets longer every year. Prices go lower, expenses get cut, and stores stay open longer.

This isn't the worst holiday season since 2009. This is what retail looks like in the online world.

Income levels among the lower middle class have ticked slightly higher every year since 2009. It’s a tough environment but that’s how it always is in retail.

As for the idea that things are great on the high-end, that’s true for the economy but not necessarily for the stores. Walmart, Nordstrom (JWN), and Tiffany (TIF) have all seen stable net margins for the last three years. Walmart is expected to report slightly under 8% net income margins in the U.S. for the 4th consecutive year by the time all is said and done.

Discounters aren’t making a big show of taking down lower prices because they aren't anymore scared than they normally are. This is what they do every year.

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Christmas Comes Earlier This Year

For all of our wonderful traits, Americans have almost no sense of history. Black Friday didn’t get its name because retailers traditionally hurl their doors in the pre-dawn darkness the day after Thanksgiving. “Black” is a reference to the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas being the most profitable time of the year for merchants. Stores were said to operate at a loss, or “in the red” 11 months of the year but become profitable, or “move into the black” over the holidays.

The day after Thanksgiving didn’t become the busiest shopping day of the year until 2004. For years the biggest day of retail sales was the Saturday before Christmas when retailers would be forced to clear their shelves before post-holiday returns started pouring back into stores.

Advice: Stay home and let the deals find you

If you’re appalled by the notion of elbowing your way into a store during a holiday weekend, you’re in good company. In fact according to the National Retail Federation, only 30% of Americans polled plan to go to the mall Thanksgiving weekend. Nearly a third (31%) haven’t decided yet, and a reassuring 38% of the country plans to avoid the mall entirely.

According to Shop.org’s eHoliday survey conducted by Prosper Insight & Analytics, half of the retailers surveyed (51.1%) are starting promotions at least 5 days before the big weekend. Naturally the brick and mortar stores will be forced to match those deals.

Even without the promotions, better deals are often found online. On Tuesday Bloomberg reported a survey of toys sold at Amazon.com (AMZN) were priced slightly lower than what could be found at Walmart. Even with promotions kicking in, Target (TGT), Walmart, Best Buy and a host of other major retailers have made it stated policy to match the lowest price of any competitor.

The significance of Black Friday and the holiday shopping season is being wildly overstated. Smartphones are blurring the distinction between shopping online or off. Now there is shopping 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Consumers have more selection between stores and more ways to shop. The retailers are doing a lot of complaining, but they’re still grinding out earnings growth by holding down costs and promoting low prices, just like they’ve been doing for a century.

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No Need to Rush: The deals will find you at home

The retailers are hungry, not desperate. They’re going to look to promote the lowest prices and try their very best to create a shopping frenzy. It’s a bit of end of the year economic stimulus that is the retail industry’s traditional gift to the country.

The best thing about this year is you don’t have to camp out in a mall parking lot on Thanksgiving night to find the best deals. Stay home by the fire, the retailers are going to find you there.

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