Nearly 130 years later, we are still holding white sales in January, which brings us to the final reason a store’s management these days will hold a sale: because they did it last year. A successful sale one year forces a store manager to “anniversary” those numbers the next year and every year for eternity, because the one number retail managers care about more than any other is the “comparable store sales” increase or “comp,” the monthly percentage with a plus or minus sign in front of it that compares the selling season this year with the same one last year. Investors consider the comp to be the most reliable measure of a store’s financial health.
So white sales are now semi-annual, and back-to-school sales start in July, and on the most closely watched shopping day, the “Black” Friday after Thanksgiving, doors now open at 5 a.m. (Another way of pumping numbers: Increase store hours.) Most of these sales settle into a sort of yearly rhythm called a markdown schedule, which often begins with a 20 percent or 30 percent price cut on select seasonal goods two or three weeks into the thirteen-week selling season, followed by a series of as many as five price cuts over the next six weeks. But in recent years, stores, dogged by procrastinators who wait around until the stores have administered their deepest discounts, have begun to deviate from once-sacred schedules and traditions. Holiday markdowns, which used to begin on Black Friday, are now moving toward early November at some stores. The chief executive of a mid-size housewares chain told me he makes the decision whether to take more markdowns every Monday morning.
On a certain level, constant sales make sense. Customers have varying levels of price sensitivity—your average mother is more price-sensitive than your average woman, and your average woman is more price-sensitive than your average man, which is why items purchased by moms—sweaters, kid’s clothes, cereal—tend to have larger bands of price “elasticity,” meaning the demand for them changes much more when the price changes. So they get steeper markdowns than items purchased by single men, like suits, Bose speakers, and Nike Air Force Ones. The same customer also exhibits varying levels of price sensitivity about different things. For the housewares chain, for instance, there are three tiers of merchandise: the top tier, standbys like Lodge cookware that stay in stock and very rarely go on sale; the middle tier of trendier gizmos like fondue makers; and the lowest tier of seasonal items like mulling spices, which are the first to get marked down.
But a few irrational factors are at work as well. First: fear. The fear of “comping down”—selling less stuff than last year—not only drives a lot of selling decisions, but it drives a lot of buying decisions. That’s why, at department stores especially, so much of the merchandise looks like it’s from last year; deviating too much from the predictable formula delivers unpredictable results. It’s also probably why a buyer in the Saks organization decided, around this time last year, to order a large shipment of Teri Jon silk blazers for the fall 2005 season in a very 2004 shade of emerald green, because both blazers and emerald green had done so well in 2004. The shipment, of about twenty blazers, arrived at the Fifth Avenue store in late August, with price tags reading $410.
Retail managers have traditionally been awarded holiday bonuses on the basis of comps, and in the days when they were empowered to make decisions, they liked to mark down items early and often. Will Speed, an industry veteran and amateur retail historian, recalls receiving a shipment of hideous yellow sweaters as a district manager at the Merry-Go-Round chain, the mall’s premier purveyor of Guess jeans in the eighties. “God, I hope the buyer was fired for that sweater,” he says, rolling his eyes. As soon as Speed laid eyes on the sweaters, he pulled out the markdown paperwork. “I got permission,” Speed remembers with a lusty grin and a hint of his native Carolina lilt, “to drop the price to one dollar.”
There is a certain rush, an undeniable high, to executing a markdown like that. Customers react; they are flabbergasted, thrilled. If they take you up on the offer of the $1 sweater—or maybe the leopard-print mules—chances are almost nil that they will leave with that alone. Suddenly those Z. Cavariccis, at $90 a pair, seem more like Levi’s; the little Guess dress more like a Rampage. They storm the doors. They wait in line. They inspire other shoppers to come inside. The first white sales were like that; Black Friday sales are a form of this, writ large. Big markdowns can cause ripples of excitement throughout a store.