Five years on, Black Friday still thrives in the UK – whether retailers like it or not

Five years on, Black Friday still thrives in the UK – whether retailers like it or not

Black Friday is always forecast to be bigger and better than ever, and in the face of heightened online spending, high-street retailers must embrace omnichannel if they are to keep up with internet-only rivals.

For all the negative coverage Black Friday continues to attract from its many critics, its presence in the UK has not only endured, but steadily grown – and whether people liked it or not, it had its biggest-ever sales extravaganza on its fifth anniversary during November 2018.

Earlier in the month, Amazon announced that its Black Friday spectacular would be better than ever before, and that the big day itself would only act as an anchor; its sales period ran between November 16th and 25th, while it was all but guaranteed that Amazon would spearhead a separate event for Cyber Monday (November 26th).

This shouldn’t have been a surprise for anyone; after all, Amazon was responding to demand as well as expectation. Statistics published the year before by Barclaycard, which now processes almost half of all debit and credit card transactions in the UK, estimated that Black Friday spending had risen by 8% when compared to 2016 sales.

At the same time, analysts cited by this Guardian coverage claimed that the number of shoppers in retail parks and high streets on the day itself had dropped by 8%, in part due to prior discounting from electronics and fashion businesses.

The demand for the high-street shopping experience was once again losing out to online sales during a critical period, and while there are many reasons for this shift, the high street can’t afford to ignore the event – and must use an omnichannel strategy to maintain a grip on Black Friday and remain competitive.

Limited resistance

Black Friday was launched in the UK in 2013 by American giants Amazon and Walmart – the latter using Asda as its host – dividing public opinion immediately. Its critics were somewhat vindicated by what quickly followed.

In the first two years alone, shoppers created eye-opening scenes, whether it was a man getting pinned down in a car park outside of Bristol Asda after trying to buy two 60-inch TVs, or a stampede for 40-inch Polaroid TVs in Wembley Asda, questionably encouraged by dancing cheerleaders dressed in black.

Shoppers going hell for leather in Asda on Black Friday.

So it was unsurprising when Asda, uncomfortable with the bunfights it orchestrated, decided to axe its Black Friday deals ahead of 2015. By doing so, it joined a handful of retailers who decided against Black Friday from the very start, most notably Fat Face, whose chief executive Anthony Thompson called it “bonkers” and [said it was “bad for customers, […] bad for business [and] bad for UK retail”](https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42093624).

Yet for all the negative, annual editorials about Black Friday – which still rolled in as we published this – the anti-Black Friday brigade’s high-street ranks have far from swelled. B&Q was the only major player to withdraw in 2018, after commissioning research which found that consumers were more willing to trust retailers which offer “low prices throughout the year more than those that run frequent sales”.

Yet these findings aren’t quite as damning as B&Q, a company you don’t exactly associate with a Black Friday extravaganza, makes out. If anything, the figures underline why the high street is still forced to engage with the event.

B&Q is stepping away from Black Friday in 2018.

Shoppers still see Black Friday as a must-buy day

B&Q’s research found that nearly half (46%) of shoppers didn’t plan to shop in 2018’s Black Friday sales, while a further 43% said they “often or always returned items after regretting purchases made in sales”. While these stats sound shocking on the outset, you only have to look at the inverse of the findings to find a more important trend:

  • Over half of UK consumers (54%) specifically planned to shop on Black Friday 2018 – a sales event that was only five years old in the UK.
  • While shoppers will always regret purchases, the critical 43% could potentially form all but 3% of the 46% of Black Friday cynics in the survey. It’s safe to say this isn’t the case, but regretting one purchase in, say, four is hardly a new thing in the fashion and electronics sectors – two of the biggest players on Black Friday.

The strategy of backing away from Black Friday may have worked for B&Q, a predominantly out-of-town retailer. However, huge organisations were predicting a continuing upward trend that fell in line with Barclaycard’s 2017 findings.

Same old players, brand new format

The phrase “Blackvember” may be a clunky portmanteau, but don’t be surprised if it becomes the new phrase for the sales season. As we saw in 2018, Amazon already accepted that Black Friday was just the central day of an otherwise long-running sales event.

And would you believe it, this attitude was mimicked by its former Black Friday launch partner, Asda. After famously turning its back on the day itself after all those aisle-based scrapes, it launched its “Green is the New Black” multi-day sales event, clearly understanding that it needs something to respond to the evolving appetite for deals in November.

Green is apparently the new black at Asda.

The move made sense. Now the novelty has worn off, British businesses are coming to the realisation that while Black Friday is a federal holiday in the US, it’s a regular working day here. What’s more, payday for many doesn’t fall until the weekend after the big day – so spreading the deals across two or three weeks is the best way to access customer funds, especially ahead of Christmas.

It’s a model the high street needs to replicate, and must draw on an omnichannel approach: capture shoppers online, then bolster in-store sales.

The high street needs to roll those omnichannel sleeves up

November and December have always tested businesses, but it’s the perfect time to employ, test and improve omnichannel abilities – especially with the internet being used by more people than ever to locate deals.

If you’re running Black Friday on the high street, what should you do to maximise this potential?

Buy stock specifically for Black Friday

Getting shoppers through the door is most of the battle on Black Friday, but you don’t have to discount products on already-tight margins to do this. An investment in products that can be turned over for a meagre profit – or even just a guaranteed even break – still gets shopping-primed customers into your store, who can then get more out of other products you sell. Promoting these both online and offline will open you up to all sorts of new shoppers, who you can reach from repeat in-store visits, or through newsletters via email sign-ups to your online store.

Shoppers on Black Friday.

It’s not a particularly new strategy, but it works. However, the focus shouldn’t be on making a profit: Black Friday isn’t as much of an opportunity to sell products as it is to create new relationships. Black Friday-specific stock will not only improve footfall but potentially attract new custom from open-minded consumers who may never have interacted with your brand before and who will go on to buy into your deeper-margined inventory.

Incentivise click and collect

If you can’t beat them, join them. If you still have to charge for click and collect for one reason or another, consider waiving it for Black Friday (or “Blackvember”) in order to get more people into store. If you can, consider lowering prices too, subject to click and collect.

People will always check for comparative deals online, so if you can offer a special price if your customer opts for click and collect – pushing you to the top of a price checker – chances are you’ll make much more from in-store purchases during their visit (something we found in our 2018 State of Omnichannel Retail Report).

Standard online purchases still have the very real drawback of being subject to delivery, often arriving days after the initial buzz of buying has worn off. Giving people an excuse to get it on the day in person, when the excitement for Black Friday is high, is something many customers will happily go for – particularly if over 75% of them planned on shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores, as per BlackFriday.Global.

Make your store as experiential as possible

To separate yourself from online retailers, use the one thing in your arsenal you can guarantee they don’t offer: an in-store experience. If you’re able to host something during the course of the sales season that ties into a sale itself – whether that’s a book signing, fashion show, music performance or product demonstration, you can show what makes your brand worth seeing in person.

Consider offing something more experiential on Black Friday.

Combining this with a full focus on great customer service, and enlisting extra people to help transactions run quickly and smoothly, could most definitely pay off, with the right combination of products and experiences.

Keep them coming back by spreading those deals

As Asda and Amazon understand, “Blackvember” is slowly becoming the shopping equivalent of an advent calendar: customers want to open doors or webpages regularly to see what treats lie in store on that day. Amazon Fashion even took this format to the high street with its pop-up, which we visited in September 2018 – it changed the layout and stock of the store so that people had another reason to return.

There’s a lot of irony in the fact that an ecommerce giant is pioneering a concept that businesses could have adopted a long time ago – and the fact it coupled its pop-up with different after-hours events only made it even better. It’s not too late to learn from this – the market is otherwise wide open for an ever-evolving high-street presence.

Whatever you do, don’t insult the customer with poor offers

While consumers love Black Friday, they’re also more than aware of the true value of offers, especially when they’re actively tracking a product. With this in mind, it’s critical you ensure your offers are genuinely great deals; consumers are savvy enough to know if a deal is something that competitors – or even you! – offer at other times of the year, and labelling a rerun of this sale with a Black Friday banner will insult their intelligence – and undermine your participation.

Black Friday needs good deals - don't fob customers off.

As long as customers love Black Friday, so should you

One thing’s certain: it’s wrong to believe that cracks are appearing in the British house that Black Friday built. While this type of cynicism may have convinced many to pull back from this huge sales opportunity, the cracks aren’t because of serious, structurally devastating subsidence – they’re the types of hairline fractures you’d expect in any high-grade, new-build home that’s settling into its foundations. Black Friday is going nowhere.

Black Friday shouldn’t be relied upon by businesses to simply boost sales – but it should be used to build and maintain a following. If you’re not engaging with this hugely captive audience on such an important day, the outcome could be potentially devastating, especially as all major online sellers are stepping up their game.

Customers still absolutely love Black Friday, and as long as they think that way, the high street must respond to this demand. Many retailers may take a moral stance against it, but while some cynics may doff their cap at a retailer’s anti-Black Friday stance, these people are hardly the best target audience to be popular with.

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