Black Friday - the nightmare before Christmas

22 Nov 2017  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
Black Friday - the nightmare before Christmas

As the UK braces itself for the annual retail extravaganza, Will Hanmer-Lloyd explains why Black Friday isn’t actually a behaviourally sound sales tactic

Black Friday, the American import we never knew we didn’t need, is once again upon us. This will be a very different year to 2014, when shoppers scrapped over tellies in Tesco - the sale has largely moved online, following the consumers, a trend heightened by Amazon’s dominance in the Black Friday phenomenon.

This has ignited debate around the deals - with warnings that they are not as great as they appear for consumers, and many questioning their value for retailers.

From a behavioural standpoint, there are several advantages to a mass sale like Black Friday. Our brain’s wiring means that, on a subconscious level, if we perceive that everybody else is doing something, we are more likely to want to do it too.

The publicity and hype around Black Friday strengthens this and it may encourage people to buy things that otherwise they may not have bought. This brings us onto another good reason for a big sale - loss aversion: we hate to lose much more than we like to gain.

The brevity of the sale means shoppers can fear missing out, encouraging them to buy items that they may have taken two years to buy - or not even bought at all. So far, so good for retailers looking to boost revenues.

However, for a few reasons, Black Friday isn’t actually a behaviourally sound sales tactic.

It’s just another sale for no reason

Historically, large sales have taken place for a discernible purpose. In the UK, there frankly is no good cause for a huge sale in the middle of November. It’s not Christmas, it’s not Halloween, it’s not even Valentine’s Day - it’s an empty vessel. This matters for retailers, as it reduces cultural incentive to join in on a mass event.

Compare this to Alibaba’s ‘Single’s Day’ in China: this, too, was a sale invented to generate revenue, but it tapped into a group of people (singles) so effectively that it is now a real cultural event that created an entire day of celebrations, and is treated much like a real public holiday. Black Friday is just money off a bunch of stuff - meaning there’s no real social pressure to get behind the day, just buying pressure. For retailers, the former is definitely preferable.

The customer is not a moron

...She’s your wife. David Ogilvy’s famous quote still makes sense today - and it’s relevant here because consumers are getting smarter about promotions.

For one, they’re realising that a lot of the ‘deals’ they see are really not as wonderful as they’re being led to believe - reducing any motivation to see the sale as a magical period of extravagant reductions.

For another, consumers are now beginning to wait and see if an upcoming sale will reduce prices before they buy a product. This means that customers normally willing to pay full price for an item are savvy enough to wait for its reduction - exactly the kind of behaviour a retailer wants to avoid. And around Christmas no less.

The Black Friday backlash

When big retailers’ sales began on January 1st, there was a lot of sense behind the decision: get rid of last year’s stock when people have already bought their gifts at Christmas and probably wouldn’t otherwise be shopping. This crept closer to Christmas and eventually became the Boxing Day sales, which were spread out enough that retailers could cope with the demand.

With Black Friday, most consumers want stock immediately as a part of their Christmas shop, but distribution of Black Friday orders has historically been difficult.

Retailers have been challenged in the past by the huge numbers of orders and have often not fulfilled their delivery promises, creating negative sentiment for the brand involved - the opposite to the intended effect.

Black Friday is a sale that not only incentivises discount shopping in a period when customers are willing to pay at full price, but one that actively bolsters negative opinions.

Black Friday, an important social event in the US, can therefore be seen as a bit of a damp squib from a behavioural (and retailer) perspective in the UK.

It’s the gift that keeps on taking - but it’s one that retailers will be locked into as long as companies like Amazon continue to flog the idea. It’s exactly that which makes it, in my opinion, a retailer’s nightmare before Christmas.


Will Hanmer-Lloyd is behavioural planning director at Total Media

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 22 Nov 2017
“"Historically, large sales have taken place for a discernible purpose. In the UK, there frankly is no good cause for a huge sale in the middle of November. It’s not Christmas, it’s not Halloween, it’s not even Valentine’s Day - it’s an empty vessel. This matters..."
Hear hear! In the US, Black Friday exists for a reason. It's the day after the biggest holiday of the year, and a day when all stores have been closed. Drunk on turkey and fractious family time, shoppers go nuts with the pent up consumerist urge, and the sales are huge - bigger than Boxing Day.
In the UK, it's just a random Friday in November. It's grey and overcast, and there's nothing to prime consumers that it matters, other than a huge ad blitz. It's the ultimate artificial sales event, and consumers don't have the same connection with it as, say, Boxing Day sales.
Which of itself raises some intriguing questions - for a sale to really resonate, does it have to have at least some basis in people's daily lives? Boxing Day sales come after a day of being cooped up with family; Black Friday in the US similarly - maybe it's a vital common theme!”

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