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What impact will the Which? Black Friday report have?

Andy Mulcahy, editor, IMRG - @andymulcahy

So – Black Friday is done and dusted for another year (see our final sales figures for the period), which has become the peak online shopping period of the year during which customers are driven to retail sites in their droves with the expectation of getting access to a host of heavily-discounted products.

Yet a report by Which? – published a week before Black Friday – presented a challenge to the idea that it is indeed the time of year to get the best bargains. This report tracked the daily prices of 178 products that were promoted as Black Friday deals over a five-month period (three before and two after Black Friday 2015), revealing that actually only around half (90) were offered at their cheapest rate on Black Friday – the remaining could have been purchased for cheaper at other times during the period covered.

Why was this a problem?

To an extent, the findings of the research are hardly fall-off-your-chair surprising – retail prices do go up and down throughout the year after all, in line with supply and demand, a need to stimulate sales activity if things slow down, the need to clear old stock to make way for new season ranges etc. Paying ‘full’ price for something only to discover it’s on sale a week later is always a chance you take as a customer.

In this case things are arguably a bit different though, because:

An event that triggers such strong emotions in people – some love Black Friday, others hate it to the extent that they have launched rival campaigns to encourage people to engage in alternative activities, such as exercise or donating money to charity instead – was always going to receive a lot of scrutiny over practices used. So it shouldn’t be a massive surprise that Which? chose to focus attention on it for one of their campaigns. 

An unnecessary import?

The interesting thing about Black Friday is that it’s an extreme event that didn’t really seem to be required. If we had been faced with a situation in which people had stopped shopping entirely, it would be easier to rationalise the introduction of a mass discounting event during the peak shopping period – as a desperate attempt at diverting spend back toward retail – but there was still strong growth for online retail (in 2013 for example, annual growth in our sales index was +16%; in 2014 it was +14%).

With that in mind, Black Friday (a US event, linked to Thanksgiving, which has no cultural significance in the UK) has been rather enforced on retailers here. In 2014 the scale of it caught industry by surprise and, with sales activity in early November slow to start, the rate and range of discounts promoted on Black Friday were higher than some retailers were planning, as they felt they needed to do so in order to stimulate activity. Shoppers responded in their droves, and the idea that there is a specific time of year when retailers will cut their prices on a massive scale was born – that Black Friday is the time to shop, and that the deals will be eye-popping.

Early signs of impact?

2014 set that precedent, but clearly just selling everything at a huge discount is not a sustainable option for many. The overall approach needed to change and in the subsequent two years there has been a trend for retailers to restrict discounts to a product category or range, so the best deals are mixed in with other products available either at full price or smaller discounted rates – in the hope that the overall spend per customer will help offset the hit to margins.

So Black Friday doesn’t seem to have the same sense of franticness of 2014 now – stretched out over a longer period, plus retailers have a better understanding of what to plan for – and we may have expected it to continue to grow strongly. It would be unfair to suggest it isn’t, but the actual growth for the Black Friday week came in -4% below our forecast – whereas in 2015 our original forecast was exceeded.

Is this a natural progression, were there other factors at play or did the Which? report have an impact on shopper interest this year? It is, of course, impossible to say – but it does at least seem possible that the report findings have already had an impact, and may have a lasting one. 

So with that in mind, I think there are a number of potential negatives and positives for industry that may be taken from the publication of this report.

Negatives

I’ve restricted this to two negatives – it could have been a far more substantial list but these are the core ones (and they are fairly seismic). 

1 Trust 

On an obvious level, if shoppers don’t believe the information they are being shown they will most likely become less responsive to sales promotions – which form an important part of some retail strategies if sales activity happens to be slow. Should that idea become quite deeply entrenched, it may be a very long way back to earn customer trust again.

Interestingly, we ran a survey with Toluna in October (before the Which? report was published) and it found 61.5% of respondents don’t trust the discount claims made around Black Friday. So maybe this is actually a more deep-rooted issue than is perhaps widely acknowledged.

2 Anti-Black Friday sentiment

Since the in-store scuffles in 2014, Black Friday has had a pretty poor reputation it has to be said. But is also has its fans – a survey we ran with eDR in late 2015 found that 31% look favourably on major discount events (such as Black Friday), while 30% look unfavourably; an even split. 

Yet those with a favourable view of it are most likely attracted by the promise of getting a deal. If they don’t trust that to be the case anymore, we might expect that enthusiasm – and therefore propensity to purchase – to diminish somewhat. This isn’t to suggest that people would stop buying things at Xmas anymore, but it could create further disruption to the new pattern of Xmas peak trading that has only just become settled again (well, possibly anyway). 

Positives

I have listed more positives because the negatives are obvious – and actually it’s not so much the report itself that is important but the industry response to it.

1 More than one time to shop

Black Friday 2014 served to create this idea that there is tiny period of the year – lasting either a single day or a few days at most – when you should do your shopping as that is when stuff is cheap (for example – the electricals sector, where average basket values are quite high, had a poor 2015 in terms of sales growth following November 2014; which may have been directly related to the ‘arrival proper’ of Black Friday in that month). 

A message that came out from the report findings was that prices of some of the products were actually lower at other times of year, which is common in retail – prices can go up and down in line with demand. There is nothing underhand about that (in most cases!), it is a tactic used for a number of reasons such as regulating the flow of stock in the warehouse.

By extension, shoppers are inadvertently being told that they don’t necessarily need to wait until Black Friday to get the best deals, they are available throughout the year if shoppers do their research. It has never been in retailers’ interests as a whole for shoppers to think they should shoehorn all their purchases into the Black Friday period.

2 A more considered approach to retail

Black Friday works by generating a sense of intensity in shopping – the idea that if you don’t buy now, you’ll be missing out. It’s very far from what good retail practice is at other times of year – which is about building relationships with customers, personalising information, providing high quality experiences. Black Friday is about shifting volume, quickly.

Another message from the report for shoppers is to avoid panic-buying just because an offer seems to be so good – and the fact that prices can vary right throughout the year means taking a more measured and considered approach to making purchases is not just sensible, it could also be financially rewarding. 

Which is a factor very likely to lead to satisfied customers.

3 It may have no impact at all

There is, of course, the possibility that shoppers as a whole aren’t really aware of the report’s findings and it has no impact on behaviour at all. Or they are aware of it, but still feel that they are able to get good deals on Black Friday regardless, generally speaking.

However shoppers do respond however, it is highly likely that media will not forget and remind shoppers in the run-up to Black Friday next year – Black Friday’s famous image problem seems set to continue.

4 Price is democratic online

A bit of suspicion on the part of shoppers is not necessarily a bad thing if you’ve nothing to hide. If the report makes people do a bit more digging to ensure they are getting a bonafide deal, they are only going to end up buying from those whose claims genuinely represent a good deal. So – honest traders will do well, those trying to exploit shoppers less so (plus they risk being exposed on social media, in a potentially very loud way, in the process).

So – what now?

Firstly, we don’t really know what the impact of this information will be. It may significantly change shopper behaviour, it might have little perceptible effect at all. As mentioned above, sales volume growth over the Black Friday week was slightly lower than expectation, but there may be any number of factors at play there.

Secondly, this has started off as being something very negative around trust in retailers, but where it goes from here can actually be positive or negative – it all depends on what happens now and how industry reacts.

Related posts 

What did we learn from Black Friday 2016?

Do shoppers want more technology in-store?

Xmas peak trading 2016: 6 unanswered questions for retailers to consider

What people think about Black Friday