Why this could be the end of Black Friday

Shoppers grab bargain TVs at an Asda store in Leeds on Black Friday last year, but this time the retailer chose not to take part.  Picture by Tony Johnson.
Shoppers grab bargain TVs at an Asda store in Leeds on Black Friday last year, but this time the retailer chose not to take part. Picture by Tony Johnson.
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Today was meant to be the biggest day for shopping in the entire year with stores promising bargains galore. But is Black Friday already past its sell by date? Grant Woodward reports.

THEY were expected to start queueing early, but as Black Friday dawned, the lines of expectant shoppers outside major stores across Yorkshire were conspicuous by their absence.

Introduced to these shores five years ago by online giant Amazon, the US phenomenon that is the one-day sales bonanza had triggered additional safety measures in the wake of scenes last year which at times bore more resemblance to a riot than a pre-Christmas shopping trip.

Tesco, for instance, was erecting barriers, laying on additional security staff and extending its opening hours today in a bid to avoid a repeat of last year’s chaos, when police were called to more than a dozen stores.

Leeds-based Asda – which is owned by US company Walmart – was one of the first to introduce the one-day bargain bonanza to British shoppers and saw a scramble last year as customers fought over flatscreen TVs.

This year it has chosen to scale back its involvement and spread deals across the season both online and in store.

It’s a decision that has proved to be rather canny, as the shortage of bargain hunters flooding into the region’s stores leads some to ask if this could this be the beginning of the end for Black Friday.

“The bad PR over the rioting at some stores last year is going to factor into Asda’s decision but, I bet after looking at everything on balance, being part of Black Friday simply doesn’t stack up for them,” says Timothy Leonard from Leeds-based brand design consultancy Elmwood.

“After all the money spent promoting, staffing and discounting, what are they left with? I imagine most people who managed to grab a bargain last year didn’t then stay in the store and spend time browsing, especially with the threat of violence in the air.”

It’s a point borne out by research by Barclaycard which found that almost half of sales shoppers were planning to buy online this year to avoid getting caught up in the fights and stampedes they saw last year. And in America, where Black Friday started as the launch of the Christmas shopping season, falling as it does the day after Thanksgiving, shoppers aren’t buying into it in the way they once did.

Last year, spending volume on Black Friday fell for the first time since the 2008 recession. Just under £40 billion was spent during the four-day Black Friday weekend, down 11 per cent from the previous year.

Since the 1990s an anti-consumerism event called ‘Buy Nothing Day’ which falls, not coincidentally, on Black Friday, has grown globally through support by consumers. As the anti-consumerism voice grows, says Timothy Leonard, it becomes harder for retailers to ignore.

“Then there are the protests and demonstrations planned to highlight the plight of the workers at stores. Those who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families on the wages, never mind afford the heavily-discounted goods they sell,” he says.

“Spearheading a brave new way is REI, a Seattle-based clothing brand, which has made the decision to take a stand by closing all of its stores on Black Friday, their busiest shopping day, and they are encouraging other retailers to follow suit to show consumers they understand the growing sentiment that this is getting out of hand.

“It’s nice to see a brand really living its values – the acid test being to stick to them, even if it costs you money.

“What matters is the experience. For me, Black Friday reeks of FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. Maybe we need less fear, otherwise consumers may embrace a bit of JOMO, or Joy of Missing Out.”

Catherine Shuttleworth, of Leeds-based shopper and retail marketing agency Savvy Marketing, sees things a little differently.

“Retailers have still got a very strong appetite for Black Friday,” she says. “Spending has been a little depressed and they’re desperate to get people in and start spending again, so they’ll jump on anything they think consumers have bought into. But I think this year it’s much more targeted rather than just 25 per cent off everything.

“A far as consumers go, today is the last pay day before Christmas. This is the start of the shopping season, but families in Yorkshire and beyond have probably got a fixed budget and I’m not sure they will go over it. A lot of people will have already bought their presents and made the most of three for two deals and other offers.

“We’ve become smarter. Black Friday is a very blunt instrument. Yes, some people will come in to shops on the back of it but then we’ve got Cyber Monday coming up on Monday and something else next Thursday.

“Marks and Spencer have been running 20 per cent off deals for the last six weeks. There are discounts hanging around in the background.

“Regardless of Black Friday, who’s paying full price for stuff unless it’s the top 10 toys for Christmas and Apple watches?”

Among those who are lured in by today’s offer of bargains, there are often several psychological factors at play that make them take part in the first place and then colour their behaviour once they make it through the doors.

“The lure of a bargain can drive tension and frustration, which can often surface as aggression,” says Nigel Jones, principal lecturer in marketing at Sheffield Hallam University. “There is certainly an issue of not wanting to miss out.

“It would be interesting to do some research as to whether these people actually want or need these things when they’re jumping over each other to get them.”

Jones believes Black Friday as we know it is fast approaching its sell by date.

“We’ve already had Asda come out and say it’s no longer formally supporting Black Friday because people don’t want one-off bargains, so they’re putting the money into running offers over a period of time.

“There are a number of stores who would rather do without because you are creating stock and website headaches and at the same time you are losing what could potentially be full price, pre-Christmas sales.

“From a customer point of view I think the novelty has worn off, there are a lot of people who have been put off by the scenes that have taken place in previous years.

“Also, there is clearly going to be a growing transition towards online – which we will see on Cyber Monday in a few days’ time.”

And even for those who do get a buzz from fighting off the hordes to snaffle an in-store bargain today, the thrill could prove short-lived.

“In the past there has been a big spike in returns after Black Friday because people realise they’ve bought something they don’t really want or it means they can’t afford something else that they need,” says Catherine Shuttleworth. “The secret to successful Black Friday shopping is to be selective.”