This is a fuller version of some work we did, looking at Black Friday in the UK this year. I say "we" — there was some debate and discussion around this, and what is presented here should be considered my own opinions, rather than those of my employer/colleagues. (That is to say, alongside the standard disclaimer, not necessarily everything here was originally my idea, but it is reflective of my current thoughts/opinions.)
The traditional Christmas retail cycle used to be fairly simple; a build-up over the course of November and December, leading up to the last-minute gift shopping frenzy, followed by the Boxing Day sales when people would go and spend whatever they had left after Christmas (and often a fistful of gift vouchers) on themselves. But as an increasing amount of Christmas shopping activity has moved online each year, that pattern is changing.
For several years, we have seen a kind of “double peak” pattern in online traffic around the Christmas run-up; the first peak in early December as the more organised online shoppers get their orders placed in plenty of time for a Christmas delivery, and then a second peak later in the month as shoppers look online for information to help with their last-minute shopping — presumably well aware that they had missed the chance for a Christmas delivery.
In the US, where Thanksgiving is celebrated at the end of November, that first peak has traditionally been pushed by the "Black Friday" phenomenon. When I mentioned it in a weekly round-up post for my work blog last year , I thought it was worth explaining exactly what "Black Friday" meant — assuming that the concept of the post-thanksgiving retail event would be unfamiliar to UK readers.
This year, that phenomenon is much more familiar. Firstly, because more UK retailers than ever have been joining in with "Black Friday" marketing — although Amazon claim to have led the charge, British brands such as Tesco, Sainsburys, Top Shop, Argos — even that most British of high street Retailers, John Lewis were promoting Black Friday discounts this year — giving them their best sales week on record.
But we have also seen a sharp increase in online mentions of “Black Friday”, identifiable as coming from the UK – a fourfold increase on mentions last year.
Although other countries have seen significant increases in mentions this year, this means that while Black Friday remains a predominantly American phenomenon, the UK now accounts for the second largest number of online mentions of “Black Friday”.
Perhaps the most telling difference is in the volumes of mentions over time; in the US, Black Friday sees significant volumes of mentions in the days leading up to the event itself, with almost as many mentions at the end of the day on Thursday, as shoppers talk about preparing for the sales and shops’ early openings.
In the UK, there was relatively little build-up; the peak was in the morning of the Friday, remaining high until lunchtime, after which it gradually declined over the course of the afternoon and evening.
Two brands stand out very clearly among UK mentions – Amazon (who claim to have brought the tradition to the UK – although there were retailers with “black Friday” sales previously, Amazon can probably be credited with bringing the phenomenon to the attention of a broader audience), and Tesco. Mentions of Amazon are broadly split between those who love the discounts being offered, and those who are disappointed that they don’t offer much more than typical ‘sale prices’ – and don’t discount as steeply as US sales.
Tesco mentions were generally less favourable, referencing reports of “chaos” at the physical stores, referencing the “ridiculous” and “hilarious” videos being shared on YouTube, and questioning whether the discounted electronics are items worth fighting over. (Perhaps an easy criticism to make when focussing on the items on sale, rather than the value of the discount to shoppers – as the Washington Post points out, it isn’t the wealthy or the comfortable who are standing in line in the cold, or wrestling with one another over a slightly discounted Xbox.)
Is it here to stay?
Many of the mentions in the UK are specifically talking about the US tradition coming over to the UK, and commenting on the unattractive scenes at supermarkets and other stores. (In fact, Walmart is one of the most mentioned brands in the UK, as people comment on the scenes of bargain-hunters fighting over limited stocks.)
Whether the interest will keep up after the novelty has worn off is hard to say. There is a clear benefit to the strategy if it works; getting customers to spend with you earlier (rather than later, when they might spend with a competitor) benefits the individual retailer, while getting people to do their Christmas shopping earlier could mean that some shoppers will be doing their Christmas shopping for longer — in other words, they won't spend the same amount, but spend it earlier, but will keep on buying more gifts (stocking fillers, "I saw this and jsut had to get it for you" gifts and so on.) Which is good for the broader industry as well.
But it does seem likely that retailers who are pushing their pre-December sales as online discounts will be best positioned to make the most of the buzz around the discounts, without the negative associations that can come with images and videos of people fighting over discounted large-screen televisions in supermarket aisles. This is also more in fitting with the way UK shoppers prefer to do their holiday shopping – more shoppers in the UK plan to do their shopping online than via brick-and-mortar stores.
So – expect to see more next year; more sales, more discounts, and no doubt more ugly scenes from the shop fronts. From an advertising persepctive, I would expect to see more media money being spent on earlier messaging promoting Black Friday offers as competitors work harder to get top-of-mind association with Black Friday, which should drive earlier excitement/buzz. But I think that for the smart marketers, the place to watch will be how the bigger retailers are handling their online presence, and – with mobile accounting for more Thanksgiving traffic than desktop devices in the US – how they are looking to cater for smartphone and tablet shoppers. Setting up an 'online queue' system to manage high levels of traffic might be OK for a desktop web experience, where users can leave a browser window open in the background and get on with whatever they need to get on with, but trying to do the same on a bandwidth and battery constrained mobile experience seems like a recipe for disaster.
I'm hoping that the subject for next years Black Friday marketing conversations will be the interesting technical innovations in handling large volumes of mobile shoppers as quickly as possible, rather than the crowd control (or lack of) at physical retail stores where people fight it out amongst themselves over big ticket electrical items (perhaps to save themselves money — perhaps to make it back on eBay.)