Black Friday surprisingly competitive, but AT&T watches from sidelines

T-Mobile helped spur competition in advance of Black Friday, Wave7 reported.

Black Friday was surprisingly competitive among wireless carriers, Wave7 Research reported, but AT&T largely opted to watch from the sidelines.

The U.S. wireless market had been relatively tranquil headed into the holiday shopping season, but carriers have begun to stir in the last few weeks. T-Mobile kicked things off in mid-November with a five-day campaign offering four lines of its T-Mobile One unlimited plan for $120 a month, Wave7 reported, and Sprint countered with a promotion of five lines of its Unlimited Freedom plan for $100 a month and a business offer of five lines for $90 a month.

T-Mobile then launched a Black Friday campaign offering free flagship smartphones with a trade-in of high-end handsets as well as a $200 prepaid card for customers who switch. Verizon “made a remarkably similar announcement” the following day, Wave7 said, although its promotion was conspicuously absent from its Black Friday signage and other marketing collateral.

“In summary, Black Friday and the week leading up to Black Friday had postpaid competition that was more vigorous than it initially appeared,” Wave7 wrote in a note to subscribers. “T-Mobile was the impetus of this enhanced competition, forcing the hands of Sprint and Verizon for responses in kind. AT&T sat this war out.”

Eric Zeman of Phone Scoop also noticed AT&T’s lack of aggression, tweeting that the carrier was offering “gift cards as long as you buy flagship phones from mid 2015.”

Enthusiasm for the holiday shopping season has been dampened in part by limited supplies of high-end smartphones with oversized screens, as Wave7 reported earlier this month. Samsung’s disastrous endeavor with the Galaxy Note 7 has dampened expectations during a typically active fourth quarter, and limited stocks of both Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus and Google’s Pixel XL are also shackling the market. And while Google’s new phone works on the networks of every major U.S. carrier, Verizon has “exclusive” rights to the handset, further limiting its appeal.

Meanwhile, AT&T’s reticence to participate in the Black Friday frenzy may have something to do with its ambitions to build a digital media empire. The nation’s No. 2 wireless carrier will introduce its DirecTV offering at a high-profile event in New York later today, and it is working to gain approval of its $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner.

“In short, apart from select accessory discounts, Black Friday was not much of an event at AT&T and it is Wave7 Research’s assessment that, unlike T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon, AT&T did not ‘have its game face on,’” the market research firm said.