Is Black Friday here to stay in the UK?

24th November 2016

It seems like yesterday that we wrote our first post about Black Friday but it’s now been a couple of years since the US retail phenomenon first appeared in British stores, back in 2014. In the US, Black Friday is a day of heavily discounted sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving – a festival which is not celebrated in the UK. This has prompted some people to question why we are even holding this event and why we don’t at least call it something relevant to our culture.

Photo by on Unsplash

Photo by on Unsplash

What is Black Friday?

Traditionally in the US, Black Friday is a time for sharpened elbows, swarming crowds and frenzied shoppers fighting for bargains. A retail melee which has in some cases resulted in injury or death. This all seems terribly unBritish for a nation where queuing politely is almost considered a national sport. Back in 2014 when the event first appeared here – prompted by Amazon and US Walmart-owned Asda – it seemed that us Brits were just as eager to stampede, trample and climb over each other to wrestle over a flat screen TV as our American counterparts. However, the resulting press coverage was very quick to condemn this unwelcome behaviour, with videos of bunfights posted on social media and many people questioning what was happening to our society. The following year many Black Friday events were toned down or cancelled.

Despite being one of the original instigators for bringing the discounting event to the UK, Asda were one of the first retailers to distance themselves from the idea. Last year they opted out altogether and many other British retailers, including Jigsaw and Made took an ‘anti Black Friday’ stance.

According to Retail Week, many British retailers have expressed their concerns about Black Friday and what it means for British shoppers:

Ray Kelvin of Ted Baker said that he spoke for many retailers when he said that he would rather nor participate – and that everybody else would rather not as well.

Anthony Thompson of Fat face agrees – suggesting that shoppers should not have to worry about fluctuating prices in the run up to Christmas. Fat face have issued a price promise across all of their stores, stating that they will not lower prices on any products before Christmas Eve:

“I’m putting my money where my mouth is … People should be able to buy their Christmas presents and be confident that it’s the right price and that price will not move.”

Adapt and Survive

But despite many retailers taking a stance, it appears that Black Friday is here to stay – just in a different form. As we reported on the blog last year, many retailers were concerned about the bad PR surrounding a one day event where people came to blows over heavily discounted goods. Now many have chosen to spread the event over several days or weeks instead – and share discounts online.

Paul Martin, Head of retail at KPMG asserts that this pre-Christmas discount event is here to stay. He agrees that it needs to adapt to suit the British market:

“I think it’ll change its shape to a degree over the coming years…it obviously originated in the online space with Amazon bringing it over.

“Rightly or wrongly, everybody tried to embrace it, which meant that a lot of the physical execution was pretty poor.”

“[Now] It’s more category specific, specifically in the non-food space for consumer durables. You would argue that planning of the event would be easier for retailers selling those products because they can plan the type of stock they’re going to get on board months in advance with suppliers.”

Sparks fly in electrical discounting

After a shaky start it appears that those retailers that have chosen to embrace the event are now making sure they are planning it properly and have suitable logistics in place to fulfil orders if they are placed online. The electrical sector is one area that do not seem to be shying away from Black Friday and John Roberts founder and Chief executive of AO explained to Retail Week the complexities of preparing for uncertainty:

“We’ve been preparing since last November…there’s a vast range of predictions around Black Friday but the reality is no one knows what the scale is going to be. It’s a challenge for retail but amazing opportunity for consumers.”

Seb James, Chief Executive of Dixons Carphone agrees that Black Friday is worth the effort. Hes suggests that that businesses that were struggling to perfect their offer just weren’t putting enough thought or effort into their plans. Black Friday offers should be different from other types of sale:

“Some shops just put on deals on the crap that’s been lying around, but with us you’re going to find quality and branded goods.”

Extended sale period

As noted last year, some retailers are steering away from the American Black Friday / Cyber Monday sale model and are now prolonging the sale period for up to two weeks. Paul Martin suggests that this is to give online retailers more time to structure their offers and fulfil orders:

“There was a significant number of very well-known retailer brands in the UK who had significant website and delivery issues in early years and looking beneath the bonnet of a lot of those retailers the capacity issues haven’t gone away.

“Extending the sale period could take the strain off the actual back-end capabilities of an organisation and also has the advantage of looking great to a customer perspective.”

Peaked too soon?

Despite retailers’ mixed response to the event as they prepare for their third year, Richard Hyman, analyst and founder of ‘Richard Talks Retail’ reckons that black Friday may have had it’s day in the UK:

“Last year was much less impactful and this will be dialled down a little further. That first year was before today’s rampant discount market really gained traction. As it is, Black Friday is just another in a never-ending stream of promotions.”

Hyman suggests that as the event evolves it will polarise the industry:

“You’ll have some categories that will do really well and others will be able to quietly retreat.”

So whilst the number of retailers participating in the event may reduce, it certainly isn’t going to disappear. Instead it will adapt and evolve until it finds an acceptable place in the British retail calendar. Maybe a rebranding or at least a new name, rather than one with American and Thanksgiving connotations – which mean very little here in the UK – would be more appropriate? Whatever happens, it looks like it is very much here to stay and we’ll be watching with interest to see what happens when the stores open tomorrow!