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Walmart, Target Host Black Friday Events to Court Online, Former Toys ‘R' Us Shoppers

Crowds have traditionally flocked to stores on Black Friday, but that is changing with year-round online deals

With Black Friday sales beginning on Thanksgiving for many retailers, Walmart and Target are getting the ball rolling with a variety of new events that experts say are intended to draw online shoppers and seize upon the first holiday season without a beloved children's toy haven.

Walmart recently announced its first-ever “Light Up Black Friday” parties in stores at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Walmart also added 30 percent more toys to its brick-and-mortar locations.

The retail giant is hoping to make holiday shopping as convenient as possible for this generation of customers, writing in a press release that with its early sales, festive events and color-coded store maps, "it’s never been easier for customers to shop – and save – at Walmart on Black Friday.”

And Target vowed to organize in-store experiences around the newly added quarter-million square feet of space dedicated to toys across more than 500 stores, according to CNBC. The retailer also promised to host 25,000 hours of in-store events later in the year, with many events allowing children to play with new toys.

Target's executive vice president said that for customers with a top priority of "finding the perfect toy to wrap up and give their little loved ones this holiday, ... We want them to know that Target is here to help."

Both retailers are even deploying staff members throughout the stores to help shoppers beat long lines and check out the customers with mobile devices.

With the increased number of in-store holiday events, some experts say Walmart and Target are trying to combat the growing influence Amazon and other online retailers have over consumers. And playing an important role in their competition with online retailers is their new focus on toy sales during the first holiday season after the closure of Toys “R” Us.

Sridhar Balasubramanian, a professor of marketing and Roy and Alice H. Richards Bicentennial Distinguished Scholar at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said the extensive marketing campaigns are in response to how much Black Friday shopping has changed due to the growing popularity of online retailers.

Crowds have traditionally flocked to stores on Black Friday, waiting in line for hours to get access to long-awaited holiday deals, Balasubramanian said. But Amazon, "the 800 lb. gorilla of the online market," Balasubramanian added, has made those deals available all the time.

“With online [shopping], you lose the sense of shopping at a particular time and at a particular place,” Balasubramanian said. “That convenience is something that traditional retailers have really struggled to recreate.”

In Deloitte’s “2018 Retail Holiday Survey,” 66 percent of customers said they would go shopping online versus 56 percent who said they’d shop in-store. Respondents ranked convenience, free-shipping and time saving as the top three reasons to shop online.

Katrijn Gielens, an associate professor of marketing and Sarah Graham Kenan Scholar at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said online shopping has made it increasingly difficult to attract customers into stores. For example, it is easier to avoid the impulse buying of additional items while shopping online.

Gielens added that stores have had to turn to strategies like in-store events to court customers, and targeting toys allow the whole family to get involved in the shopping process.

“Once they’re inside the store you can tempt them with other things and that is the ultimate goal to a certain extent,” Gielens said. “If there’s one type of consumer that is easily tempted, it’s probably children. Ultimately, the parents will pay for it, but it’s also hard to say no to children.”

Balasubramanian said that because children have a different perspective of shopping than adults do and that the in-store experience is more meaningful to young children than online shopping is.

“With children, it is often a ritual to go to the store with their parents and have all the excitement around them — to touch, feel, experience the toys — and then to get something right then and there,” Balasubramanian said. “That makes it fun for the family.”

Balasubramanian said that Walmart and Target’s event-heavy, child-friendly marketing strategies also seem to be an “experiment” to see if they can capture Toys “R” Us’ former customers year-round and increase their presence in the toy market.

“I would certainly expect that some of the traffic from Toys 'R' Us is going to go definitely toward Walmart and Target,” Balasubramanian said. “But it’s not clear to me that given how shopping habits have been shifting that Walmart and Target are necessarily going to capture all of the Toys 'R' Us’ traditional customers.”

Balasubramanian noted that Toys “R” Us went out of business because its toy-only model could not compete with Amazon and other online retailers, who took over “a big chunk of that toy market.” Balasubramanian said, however, that because Walmart and Target’s offerings cover a wide range of categories, their current business “will remain robust” even if they can’t increase their toy sales.

Although Gielens thinks the events could bolster the number of in-store visits on Black Friday, she said “the jury is still out” on whether the strategy would be useful in the long-run. She warned that retailers should not market the events and toys to the point that consumers are distracted from looking through the rest of the store.

Gielens also noted that because these events promote products at lower prices, the stores’ profits might be affected. Gielens acknowledged that the retailers are being forced to take the risk to beat their competitors, but she advised that the companies should organize the events in such a way that they don’t lose money.

“Ultimately, what are [the stores] all trying to achieve: that they don’t lose market share and that they don’t lose their consumer to their competitors,” Gielens said. “But it can accommodate huge costs in that it’s simply not profitable.”

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