I’m hearing people say that Black Friday was good and that sales have risen year-over-year for this holiday period. But marketers would do well to consider that this year’s Thanksgiving fell 5 days later than last year. That means this year’s U.S. holiday shopping season is 15% shorter than it was last year (27 days vs. 32 days). So even if Black Friday 2008 was a few percentage points better than 2007, things still look mighty bad relative to retailers’ expectations.

As far back as the Great Depression, in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt was aware that a shorter buying period could have detrimental effects on the economy. Thanksgiving was set to fall late that year; Roosevelt used his presidential powers to order that the holiday be moved a week earlier, from November 30th to November 23rd, in an effort to pump life into a flagging U.S. economy. His theory was that consumers would begin shopping earlier and, having a longer shopping period, would spend more on the holidays. Unfortunately, “Franksgiving,” as it was called, caused more harm than good, messing up sporting event and travel schedules for millions of people while providing no discernible positive economic impact (as detailed on Wikipedia).

Still, when Thanksgiving occurs later in the month of November, as it did this year, it’s almost certain to have a negative effect on the economy relative to years where the holiday falls earlier.

Thanksgiving is the psychological marker for when we’re to start our holiday shopping; Christmas Eve marks the last day to buy gifts. Because the current year’s holiday period length is 15% shorter, it’s possible that total holiday shopping could be as much as 15% lower than for last year’s 32-day shopping period. That, of course, is a worse-case scenario: one would hope that our gift-giving is not so directly tied to the number of days we have to shop. But because of the macroeconomic pain we’re in, as well as the speed with which that pain descended upon us, it’s unlikely the 2008 holiday shopping period will bring anything but pain to retailers, including those using search as a primary marketing channel.

While moving Christmas out one week is not an option, there are things search marketers can do to lessen the negative effects of this year’s calendar, including the following two moves.

  • Temporarily lower your ROAS goals or raise your allowable Cost of Sales constraints.
    It is possible, perhaps even likely, that consumers — aware they have fewer days to shop — will thus convert at a higher rate over the coming days than in years past. This is a holiday season where anticipating what conversions from search are likely to be will be important.
  • Tune your bid management’s data recency weighting — at least for high-volume keywords — to take only the last few days into consideration when making bid changes. Now that the first few days of the holiday season are in the data bag, so to speak, advertisers should rely on these last few days of data, and have their bid management system manage to that data, rather than looking back 30 days or more.