A Black Friday for Public Relations

Everything is on sale. That was the big message public relations and advertising departments were desperate to get across last week and earlier this week, as retailers tried to pry money out of the wallets of cash-strapped consumers. The message was received, to a certain extent.

Over the Black Friday weekend, more than 172 million Americans visited stores or retailer web sites; that number was up from 142 million a year earlier, according to ShopperTrak RCT. The same study revealed that Americans spent $10.6 billion, a 3 percent year-over-year increase, during the busiest shopping period of the year. Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation said that the average American spent 7 percent more this year during the Black Friday weekend than they did a year ago.

The good news for retailers pretty much ends there. A shorter shopping season due to the late Thanksgiving, an economy now officially in recession, and continued workforce reductions are just some of the factors that will dampen spending over the next three weeks. Making matters worse for retailers is the fact that the deeper-than-normal discounting is eroding already slim profit margins.

With the worst consumer economy in decades as the backdrop, one would think retailers would have come up with innovative public relations strategies. One would be wrong.

The public relations strategies retailers employed for the Black Friday weekend were, for the most part, simple and uninspiring. Retailers relied heavily on advertising and flooded the zone with press releases They concentrated on local media, advertising doorbuster sales, deep discounts on hot products, and big bargains They opened early and closed late. These tried-and-true efforts work fine in a normal economic environment, but not in a recession.

One retailer, Sam’s Club, did something a little different to drum up publicity. The Wal-Mart-owned, members-only warehouse club offered shoppers a free breakfast of juice, coffee, and cinnamon rolls. No other major retailer even bothered to hand out free coffee, or publicize that it was doing so.

K-Mart and its corporate brother Sears smartly talked up the fact that they offer layaway plans. The problem is that both brands have lost their luster, their stores are outdated and they don’t stock the same type of quality merchandise that rivals do. As a result, the company’s good idea was lost in the previous five years of bad ideas, proving once again that you can’t play catch-up at the last minute.

Online, retailers continued to offer free shipping, a surefire marketing device to keep people like me away from stores and at their computer shopping. The problem is that free shipping kills margins, something that became stunningly clear when I ordered a $12 product, tax included, and it was shipped via FedEx for free., long the leading online retail destination, was one of the few retailers to show some public relations innovation. The company took a core group of a half-dozen customers who are rabid product reviewers and turned them into spokespeople. Their job was to talk up their favorite products that are offered by, and the campaign garnered some publicity.

There was a real public relations opportunity here for retailers to separate themselves from the pack, but few took advantage of it. Retailers poured money into advertising, but they ignored lower-cost public relations options. With three weeks until Christmas and an awful year coming to an end, retailers have one last shot to get it right. It will be interesting to see if any public relations departments step up to the plate.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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