Monday, November 27, 2006

Seasonal Road Signs

Black Friday and Cyber Monday aren’t the only barometers for holiday shopping trends. Add Transportation Thursday to your list—that’s Thursday as in Thanksgiving Day.

For the past nine years, my family has spent at least a portion of Thanksgiving Day in transit between afternoon and evening turkey dinners. It seems we can never unite everyone in one place for a single meal, and more often than not we find ourselves cruising Interstates 40 and 85. The trek to my parents’ home in Boone, N.C., takes us through Greensboro, with some of the most congested and convoluted crossroads in the state. The good thing about traveling mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving Day is that traffic is typically not as heavy and there have traditionally been very few tractor trailers, with the exception of flatbeds hauling Christmas trees out of the mountains. This year was notably different.

An hour into our trip as we approached Greensboro, I decided it was time to take an informal survey of what seemed to be a considerable increase in truck traffic. In the fifteen minutes it took us to travel from one side of the city to the other, I counted 29 tractor trailers—from transportation companies and retail fleets alike. I stopped counting, but commerce just kept on trucking past us. Contrast that to previous years, when we might see one or two trucks traveling the same stretch on Thanksgiving Day and it was obvious retailers are working overtime and going the extra mile to make sure inventories are in-stock for holiday shoppers.

It also underscores other trends in our industry such as the shortage of transportation resources, which forces the drivers and trucks that are available to work every possible day. Additionally, consumers clamoring for convenience and accustomed to 24/7 access to on-line retailers have led bricks-and-mortar stores to be open longer hours, in some cases nearing 24-hour operations including store openings on Thanksgiving Day. If the increased hours result in increased sales (obviously what retailers are hoping for), then an increased demand for replenishment naturally follows.

What I’m hoping for is a realistic assessment after the holidays. Tallying all the sales across the holiday season, was there enough of an increase to warrant the extra hours and the extra resources? What percentage of the total holiday sales actually occurred from Thanksgiving Day to Cyber Monday? How much did same-store sales increase from Thanksgiving weekend 2005 to 2006 in those stores that expanded their hours of operation? What about profits for that same period? Was the cost of operation easily covered by the increased sales?

Sometimes the price we pay is impossible to calculate. I couldn’t help but feel sad for the truck drivers and their families, and for trends that take us farther and farther from the traditions we are celebrating and shopping for in the first place.

— Connie Gentry