A Black Friday indeed

When you start your own business, one of the factors you underestimate is the time and organisation required to do the mundane tasks that the corporate world largely take away for you: for example, servicing the car or getting an MOT (if indeed, your company allows your car to get to three years old). So it was, that on this fine Friday morning, I found myself dropping off my car at a local garage before holing up in Costa Coffee in a Tesco for a good dose of (de)caffeine, free wifi – and the retail madness of “Black Friday”.

What does it say about our society and fundamental human behaviour that an imported, fabricated retail ‘event’ can cause (a) queues outside stores at 7am and (b) two men fighting outside a Tesco, of all places, to get the ‘bargains’ inside – as Mama Goat said, ‘I kid you not’?   This is most definitely ‘a consumer response’ and as such I find myself quite intrigued by events like ‘Black Friday’ and similar ones like Halloween a few weeks earlier. As retailers have given Black Friday more focus in recent years, it has crept furtively, unwillingly, into my consciousness. Yet, whilst I know little of its origins other than the link to the day after Thanksgiving in America, this year, the tipping point was hit: adverts and break bumpers awash with retailer adverts announcing their fabulous offers. Even John Lewis getting in on the act – indeed, like our scrapping shoppers their website was punch-drunk and floored by the amount of traffic it received. Blimey.

But how successful are these fabricated ‘events’?

Let’s consider the shopper angle first. Witness this (slightly paraphrased but genuine) conversation I overheard in the café:

Woman 1, “I hate all this Black Friday nonsense. I mean it’s just an American thing. We’re just copying their culture”.
Woman 2: ‘But there are some real bargains to be had. Are you coming?”
Woman 1. “Oh yes!”

What seems to explain this is, more than anything else, is habit – habitual shopping behaviours and responses that we have learnt since our early years. In fact, despite one of the emergent societal hypotheses being that consumers in the developed markets are moving increasingly away from a consume more model to one of consume more responsibly, Black Friday shows that the ‘old’ paradigm isn’t dead. Far from it in fact: this habit of shopping, for bargains, is powerfully ingrained, visceral. It demands a response, a response which is embedded deep within our autopilot systems. These ladies chose to shop not out of desire so much, but habit – the opportunity, the slim chance of catching a snip of a deal – only with greater odds of winning than the lottery. What’s to lose?

Cute retailers are benefiting from these habits. The disciplined ones are adopting a ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ approach: “Here’s some stuff. We’ve hacked the price. Get it before it’s gone”. Amazon advertising 80% cuts is a good example. Louis Vuitton, 60%.   But many aren’t adopting this discipline. “Come into store for our Black Friday weekend event” (where you’ll enjoy savings of up to 15%) So that’ll be Black Long Weekend then? Doesn’t have quite the same sizzle to it, does it? And look at the January sales: they’ve moved to December – at first starting on the 27th, but now encroaching on Boxing Day – you know what’s next…

Event based marketing isn’t new but it’s gathering pace. A friend of mine, a Brit currently living in Canada, believes that Halloween could soon be a bigger shopping event than Christmas – a bold claim, but his logic is sound. It’s a unique event, it’s a relatively quiet ‘retail’ time of the year, it’s a real and traditional event that involves the whole family and indeed the community (if you count trick or treating your elderly neighbours and tipping over their plant pots if they don’t comply).  Halloween I get. Easter too. Valentine’s (at a push). But at what point do we have so many events that they become meaningless. At what point do we Brits start celebrating Cinco de Mayo or Labor Day? At what point does the whole retail landscape changes to one of constant discounting, of ‘everyday low prices’ and an erosion of the few special events that make shopping interesting, fun?   The lesson seems to be, if you’re going to benefit from events, ensure they’re real, have a connection with your audience and you have the discipline to know when to stop.

And it raises the question too: do events like Black Friday increase sales, or just alter their shape? Perhaps the food and drink industry needs to get behind these events in a more focused way as they are (more of) an expandable commodity: but TV sets? Tablets? DVDs? My hunch is the sales are pulled forward to move the pain elsewhere.

Anyway, I’d better finish there – the police want to interview me down the station. Apparently I landed a real beauty on his face.

Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 7885 408367; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.

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