Should brands bother with Black Friday?

Should British brands continue to get involved with the US-led retail moment that is Black Friday, asks Whistlejacket partner Matty Tong.

Matty Tong, partner and co-founder, Whistlejacket
Matty Tong, partner and co-founder, Whistlejacket

Like an ultra-commercialised Halloween, Black Friday is one of those things that has crept over from the States and become part of our nation’s DNA. We’re now accustomed to videos of people being trampled on to acquire heavily discounted goods and shops laying on extra security to break up any fisticuffs.

My daughter wants some decent headphones for Christmas and Black Friday seems like the ideal opportunity to get them at a bargain price. However, I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing that online. And I’m not alone, as 40% of Brits say they too will be shopping online this Black Friday.

"Tis the season to shop online"
MoneySavingExpert, Martin Lewis

Which brings me to the problem I have with Black Friday from a professional point of view; what’s in it for the retailers? More specifically, for the long-established high street stalwarts like John Lewis, Debenhams, M&S, House of Fraser et al.

These brands have spent decades and millions of pounds building their brands and making them live in the hearts and minds of British shoppers; specifically around the in-store experience. They excel at creating seductive in-store experiences; from merchandising to packaging, and from store interiors to staff training, this is why many of us still chose to go in and buy sheets from John Lewis, or stock up on perfume from House of Fraser, even though we know most goods will be available cheaper elsewhere.

However, to quote MoneySavingExpert, Martin Lewis, "Tis the season to shop online". And although high street retailers have been upping their online game, when it comes to specific discount days such as Black Friday, the high street giants just can’t compete with the supremacy of online retailers such as Amazon.

A brand built around the convenience of online-optimised search functions, recommendations, cheap delivery and year round sale prices, like eBay, Amazon doesn’t care that it’s a bit ugly. We accept it’s less than delightful aesthetics because we go there looking for a deal, not expertise, and breadth of choice, not well-informed, solicitous staff.

So why bother at all?

Retailers are already accustomed to busy periods. The twice yearly sales seasons, see our favourite stores look a little less pristine and customers bracing themselves for long queues and chaotic service.  Customers are aware that they are sacrificing a comfortable experience for a great discount on a much hankered-after item.  

However, wooing customers and enticing them all year round has become common place - not just a few times a year. Some department stores may be flailing, particularly in the US. But Selfridges has been successfully enticing globe-trotting luxury shoppers by creating truly stunning instore experiences. Topshop’s recent Stranger Things tie-up was enormously fun, as was the full-size water slide this summer. Numerous high street designer collaborations have driven much needed media coverage as well as heavy footfall and cross purchasing from peripatetic fashion shoppers.

But consumer behaviour is changing

But shoppers are now increasingly savvy, educated by experience and encouraged by a plethora of price comparison sites. This helps customers plan ahead to get the best price on specific items from the retailers, who seem to be offering sales and discount periods ever more frequently.

When it comes to specific ‘deal’ days like Black Friday, the real high street winners, will forget in-store experiences and focus their efforts online and on specific products.

Although John Lewis reported record sales last year, making just under £200m (a rise of 6.5% from 2015) and Debenhams saw a 3.5% rise in sales in the 18 weeks to January 7th, figures also showed that footfall on Black Friday fell by 7% on the high street and 5% at shopping centres compared to 2015. Online however, saw sales rise by up to 25%, meaning that if your website isn’t working the way it should, Black Friday will be a dark time and targets won’t be met.

Of course, the fact that in the UK most Britons are at work on a Friday, means that online shopping is more convenient and just makes better sense. But to rival the likes of Amazon, you not only have to be cheap and competitive, you need to be convenient, quick and visually enticing too –an area that many high street names just haven’t cracked yet. There are a lot of big names with very disappointing websites, particularly when it comes to product presentation.

So by all means, invest in making your store bearable for Black Friday – get those extra bouncers in. But on the 24th November the battle will take place online and the high street needs to get a lot better at digital seduction, and ensuring the experience is seamless, functional and convenient.

So where will I buy the headphones this year? Well, I’ll no doubt consider heading to John Lewis and getting advice, but despite my good intentions Amazon will probably still receive my cash – sorry!


Matty Tong is partner and co-founder of branding agency Whistlejacket

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