The infamous Black Friday; a Friday in late-November in which citizens embark on frenzied shopping in an attempt to find pre-Christmas bargains, has only been a part of British Novembers for a few years now. The event is already widely known for creating headline-grabbing chaos over in the US and like it or not, it’s back and bigger than ever in Britain this year. With UK retailers already preparing for a busy 25th of November, it seems increasingly evident that this slice of US culture isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
But is it something your business needs to be aware of?
The term ‘Black Friday’ originated in the US in latter half of the 20th century, but the Friday after Thanksgiving Thursday has also been considered to be the beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the US since 1932.
The success of ‘Black Friday’ has only grown in our increasingly globalised culture, to the point where a number of other nations have adopted the event.
Last year we published an article discussing whether or not Black Friday is good for the UK. While criticism of the event is sure to continue regardless, many business leaders and analysts have lamented the fact that once Black Friday starts, it can’t stop.
So why exactly is Black Friday spreading across the world despite its ties to US Thanksgiving? And if Black Friday happens to be taking over your home nation, would your business benefit more from taking part or avoiding it altogether?
As mentioned, Black Friday has been fixture of US culture for quite some time and by 2005 it had claimed the spot as the busiest shopping day of the year – a mantle it has maintained ever since.
As Black Friday took the previous top spot from the last Saturday before Christmas, the day began to take more headlines. In some events, consumer frenzy has resulted in the occasional injury (and even a few reported deaths) as people rush and fight over the best instore deals. This put Black Friday’s infamy on the global map from the mid-00s onwards. The fad also spread to Canada in 2008 and 2009 as Canadian retailers attempted to avoid losing shoppers who would increasingly hop south of the border for shopping on Black Friday.
It was here that globalisation and the internet played its natural part, despite the lack of that Thanksgiving connection in other countries. With US businesses widening their reach and the internet causing ever-stronger connections between people around the world, deals enjoyed on some US websites became sought after across the ocean.
Amazon was the first company to really attempt to bring Black Friday to the world at large. To prevent its non-US users from feeling left out it has been introducing Black Friday-inspired sales to some of its other major markets (including the UK) since 2010.
The event didn’t begin its global conquest in physical-retail until 2013 – 8 years after it really asserted its dominance in the USA. It was unsurprisingly Walmart, the oftentimes King of US Black Friday, that first bought the shopping event to supermarkets in the UK.
Walmart, wanting to establish market dominance in the UK too, introduced Black Friday to Britain in 2013 through its UK-owned supermarket chain ASDA. This was the first major push in a retail store, but many more retailers joined in in 2014, not wanting to lose customers to ASDA or Amazon.
Results of ASDA’s 2013 attempt were mixed and 2014’s Black Friday famously saw police forces across the UK called to retailers to handle crowd control, dangerous customers and traffic in issues largely blamed on a huge lack of preparation from retailers. What had been an established part of US culture for decades had completely taken UK businesses by surprise with both retail and online stores struggling to cope with the floods of customers.
While 2015’s Black Friday was better-prepared for and a bigger success for many retailers (especially online), ASDA declined to take part after 2014’s controversy and it appears unlikely they’ll take part in 2016’s UK Black Friday either.
Despite some backlash for retail Black Fridays outside of the US, the event has remained a fixation but become increasingly focused on online sales. European countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland have held online-focused Black Friday events since 2013, while Australia’s attempts at Black Friday since 2011 have also become primarily online in recent years.
The reason Black Friday will continue to spread despite some failures and mistakes is the great risk of losing customers to competitors who take part in the event. This is undeniably the primary reason for its spread in the first place too; a determination among retail businesses to not be outdone by the opposition.
This is why those quietly hoping Black Friday was doomed to fail outside of its US origins may be disappointed and why for, better or worse, it may be time for your business to embrace the reality of Black Friday and use it to your advantage.
So, how can your business make the most of this predictably unpredictable sales day?
Many of the benefits of taking part in Black Friday sales seem obvious (if not potentially exhausting) but the reality of these benefits is a lot more complicated than one might think.
Immediately obvious benefits include being able to draw customer attention away from competitors who aren’t taking part and inevitably a battle to pull customer attention away from competitors who are.
This has some downsides and complications too: namely, how do you price sales to be both competitive and attractive but also to actually make an operating profit? Cutting prices too low could mean that if these sales aren’t noticed by huge amounts of people, the business could certainly lose money.
Not only this, but the amount of preparation required to be ready for one or two days of shopping madness from customers often catches businesses by surprise. This was the reason for the UK Black Friday controversies in 2014 where physical and online retailers were thoroughly overwhelmed. Many retailers also lost huge amounts of money, panic slashing prices to compete without first discussing these price drops with distributors and producers.
So why not just avoid the event altogether? Unfortunately in many cases it’s not a choice. Many employees of retailers actually hate Black Friday, and the businesses themselves also hate organising it.
The reality is that once Black Friday started it was sink or swim – consumers expect big sales every year and at least one retailer is always willing to provide in order to take attention away from competitors. This is the primary reason retail businesses should take part in Black Friday regardless of the downsides. ASDA choosing to avoid Black Friday in 2015 was considered part of the cause for the company’s worst Q4 sales of all time – and could harm them again this year.
It’s not all bad though; there are numerous benefits to Black Friday that can even have a long-term positive effect on a business. For many, Black Friday has been seen as the perfect way to ring in the busy Christmas shopping season with a strong burst of attention and can be the best day in the year for profits, particularly for stores with a focus on electronics.
Typically expensive electronics like TVs, domestic appliances and gaming consoles are the biggest sales hits on Black Friday and businesses that offer these should definitely consider taking part. This can also be a good way for smaller electronics businesses to make a splash and expand their reach.
Following that, businesses that can make a positive impression on consumers on Black Friday through good customer service, becoming more well-known or simply by doing justice to its brand image, can improve the reputation of a store all-year-round.
But be careful, the opposite can also be true as in ASDA’s case. Some stores’ reputations can be dampened through badly handling the event or by disappointing the business’ demographic. So what kind of business shouldn’t join in on Black Friday?
After the previous section a lot of businesses may be left thinking they have no choice but to begrudgingly join in the festivities of Black Friday, but this isn’t the case for all businesses.
Some businesses have proven in recent years that they can make a big success out of consciously avoiding Black Friday, while others have discovered that taking part in the bonkers shopping day actually made little real change to their yearly takings. Many stores found that rather than actually improving how much money they made in the fourth quarter, Black Friday merely brought the usual December shopping forward a few weeks and instead left December sales far slower than they had been before.
This is where the complications of Black Friday really come into play. Businesses mustn’t only find the right balance of prices to stay competitive and not lose money, they must also find an angle on the event that really appeals to their demographic.
As mentioned in the previous section, retailers with a focus on electronic products may be out of luck with no choice but to take part. It is businesses which market on customer hobbies or lifestyle ideologies that are able to make a real success of having zero Black Friday plans.
One particularly popular and surprising Black Friday move came from REI in the US. This outdoor-activity retailer capitalised on its brand image in 2015 by announcing that its employees would not be opening stores on Black Friday but would instead go outside hiking or enjoying the environment with family after Thanksgiving.
REI popularised the hashtag #optoutside and the decision, which some expected to backfire, proved to be a massive success that improved the company’s mainstream attention and more outdoorsy brand reputation, particularly to those feeling tired and frustrated with the concept of Black Friday intruding on their Thanksgivings.
Appealing and reaching out to these people tired of the Black Friday hustle and bustle who just want to spend the weekend with their families or hobbies has become a genuine marketing tactic that has helped to improve public perception of some businesses and expand their demographics, especially in the US where Thanksgiving is such an important part of the year.
Even in the UK and other countries beginning to adopt Black Friday, taking an anti-Black-Friday stance and making it a marketing angle from the perspective of wanting to give employees more time with families or promoting hobbies is a very valid business strategy.
Another that seems to have taken off in the UK despite the lack of Thanksgiving is the concept of ‘Civilised Saturday’. This is an event pushed since 2015 by struggling smaller businesses (primarily bookshops) that takes advantage of any ill sentiment towards the increasing grip of Black Friday by encouraging a day of relaxation and a cosy feeling, with many stores even offering tea, cakes and other refreshments as patrons and new fans come in to sit and read.
Expect this kind of anti-Black-Friday marketing to continue in coming years too as the shopping spree day continues to spread its influence across the globe. Black Friday is still relatively new outside of the US, and while it may be risky for a business to go against it, a carefully planned ‘rebellion’ aimed at an anti-Black-Friday demographic could prove to be a surprising boost for a retail company’s reputation.
Black Friday, love it or hate it, continues to spread across the globe and is now certainly a UK fixation after three years of the event. What’s important for businesses to note is how you choose to embrace it, or how you can make a success out of not embracing it.
Many businesses will, of course, have already noticed that most of the biggest retailers started rolling out Christmas ads in early-November. Evidently retail giants will continue making the fight for the Christmas shopping season more and more competitive by constantly attempting to outdo one-another. The season will happen earlier and become more expensive every year as big names attempt to get the edge over the fierce competition.
As a result, these businesses will certainly try to capitalise on each key potential shopping period from the start of November right up until New Year and January. Events like Black Friday are more likely to spread than fade away. Even Amazon UK began its 2016 Black Friday sales on the 14th – almost two full business weeks before Black Friday itself.
Non-US retailers also quickly picked up on the Black Friday spinoff, Cyber Monday – in some cases quicker than Black Friday itself. Cyber Monday is the Monday after Black Friday and is primarily focused on online sales for electronic entertainment like TVs, movies and games for those too busy over the weekend to take part in Black Friday. For many of the businesses that utilise it, it too has already become one of the best sales days of the year despite not having Black Friday’s infamy.
However, many have argued that events like Black Friday simply don’t work outside of the US with the event being too ‘Americanised’ and focused on megastores that sell everything from groceries to comprehensive electronics ranges. However, even in countries where the physical retail side of the event has seen mixed results, online-retail businesses continue to take advantage and make success of both Black Friday and Cyber Monday – sometimes across the entire month of November.
While the trend seems to be increasingly online-focused, the number of countries adopting it continues to increase and it appears that once the floodgates have opened they can’t be closed again. The Black Friday event, and others like it, will also continue to shape and change new Q4 consumer trends in the next decade and beyond.
Black Friday is almost definitely here to stay but for those dreading it: it isn’t all bad. What matters isn’t how many prices you cut, it’s how you use your business’ demographic to take advantage of the day by boosting your brand image and reach.
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