While momentum for bitcoin as a consumer payment method has waned, Bitcoin Black Friday is still attracting attention from merchants its fifth year on.
The event, a bitcoin version of the usually aggressive, post-Thanksgiving shopping spree, started in 2012 as what its founder Jon Holmquist calls "a half-baked idea". But that impromptu first year has blossomed into a steady stream of demand from merchants catering to bitcoin-holding enthusiasts.
This year, more than 150 merchants participated in the event, a figure that was down sharply from 2013, when roughly 600 businesses sold goods.
However, there was a notable difference in its target audience in 2016. Rather than going after more mainstream merchants, Holmquist has shifted focus, positioning the event to attract businesses more likely to win heavy users of the digital currency.
This has meant targeting adult entertainment sites and bitcoin product providers to promote their Black Friday deals.
He told CoinDesk:
"The bitcoin community as a whole has come to the realization that bitcoin won't be a currency used for consumers transactions. Mainstream consumers won't be using it for online shopping. They use credit cards and they're fine with that method."
But while merchant numbers are down, Holmquist saw an increase in traffic to the site, which in his mind means the slump since 2013 is over.
"At least in bitcoin consumer spending, from this point onwards it's healthy, use case based growth," he said. "The growth and attention is no longer smoke and mirrors hype, it is real spending."
Holmquist thinks the pick-up this year is due to the bitcoin-first merchants, many of which offered unique products only found on the Bitcoin Black Friday website as part of the promotion.
Focusing on products and services that bitcoin enthusiasts are interested in will be the focus going forward, he said, and merchants involved agree.
"We are doing more and more sales every year, and most those sales are driven by the bitcoin community … which is growing," says Eric Larchevȇque, co-founder and CEO of French startup, Ledger. The firm, which sells hardware wallets specialized for cryptocurrencies, sponsors the event's official website.
"From our point of view, bitcoin usage isn't shrinking in any way," he continued.
For instance, Ledger sees spikes whenever the price of bitcoin rises or there's a hack at any of the mainstream bitcoin exchange providers.
As far as Bitcoin Black Friday, Ledger has been participating for three years, stretching the event throughout the weekend. In 2014, the impact wasn’t huge, Larchevȇque says. But the first version of the hardware wallet, Ledger Nano had just been launched.
The second year was more interesting. Ledger sold about $5,200 in sales in one day, about ten times more than it had ever sold in a 24-hour span, Larchevȇque says.
And those were sales on traffic Ledger wouldn't have been able to pull in on its own.
"Last year I don't think that our brand was that well known to drive the people to the [Bitcoin Black Friday] site,” he said. "It was more opportunistic sales. A lot of the traffic we got was enthusiasts just wanting to spend their bitcoin."
This year, Ledger sold almost 1,000 units for total sales a little south of $100,000, which according to Larchevȇque is an order magnitude more than last year. Plus the company had five times the traffic this year as compared to last Black Friday.
And the event is a good time to spend bitcoin, since all the merchants, similar to the traditional event, offer discounts and deals. For instance, Ledger gives 21% off on all its products Friday through Sunday.
Ledger even launched its new product,Ledger Blue, a Bluetooth- and NFC-capable touchscreen hardware wallet during the event.
But there are also merchants involved for ideological reasons.
Néstor Romeral Andrés, the founder of NESTORGAMES, uses the event to sell unique board games he creates to bitcoin users. During the year, he might not get a bitcoin transactions for months, but during Bitcoin Black Friday he secures a number of sales.
Andrés learned about bitcoin through Max Keiser, an American broadcaster known for his heterodox economic theories. To him, decreasing bitcoin transactions is a sign of people understanding bitcoin is "good money" (as opposed to government-backed fiat currencies).
But Andrés's sentiment is a dying one. "A lot of the interest has shifted away from bitcoin and into blockchain," Holmquist acknowledged.
Which makes the Back Friday event one by and for bitcoiners.
This ebb has made the event much less work for Holmquist. (Not as many merchants are enthusiastic about accepting bitcoin and he doesn’t get as many media requests).
But there are signs the event could continue to serve a purpose for a smaller market.
Because of possible legal repercussions, Holmquist hasn’t allowed online gambling sites or legal marijuana sellers to promote, although Mary Jane merchants will likely get a shot on the site in 2017.
Those industries, Holmquist said, could be ripe for expansion.
"[They] need alternatives to credit cards and that’s where bitcoin can really shine, what it was designed for and what it’s good at."
Black Friday image via Shutterstock