The Black Friday farce
This column was commissioned by executive search firm Hudson Walker International and was published in November 2015. As Debenhams, for one, is already promoting this year’s Black Friday event, my message obviously hasn’t got through!
The works of Spanish philosopher and essayist George Santayana (1863-1952) are probably not on the reading list of many fashion company executives, but his well-known quote from 1905 about the dangers of forgetting what has gone before is very apposite for today’s trading conditions.
It wasn’t that long ago that the retail business was clever and made Christmas a once-a-year bonanza that everyone benefitted from. Consumers were minded to launch themselves on a spending frenzy that saw takings soar in a pretty clearly defined period. For traders, the profits for a full-year were achieved in a few weeks.
Yet as long ago as the mid-1980s chains have been breaking with tradition and offering pre-Christmas discounts. As at the traditional Christmas panto, once out of the bottle the discounting genie cannot be put back in. For too long margin has been the present retailers have handed over to consumers and rivals that have maintained a full-price strategy.
In the past couple of years the embracing of the obnoxious American export Black Friday has shown all too clearly that the lessons of history have not been heeded. The fashion industry – with the notable exception of most premium and luxury operators and some sensible mainstream players – has made a bad situation worse.
Not content with cutting prices a few weeks before December 26, far too many concerns have been swept up in a discounting maelstrom that this year starts on Friday November 27. The huge growth in fashion ecommerce, of course, has fuelled this nonsense, making it easy for customers to seek the lowest price, the biggest giveaway. This year, industry predictions have stated, Black Friday is expected to be bigger than ever, generating across the entire market (not just fashion) more than £1bn in off-price trading.
Alas, the seismic effects of the giveaway bonanza have not been limited to November 27 or the weekend spilling overt to Monday 30 (yes, the one-day event has spread to four days of discounting for most participants). Oh no. With depressing predictability the hysterical hype surrounding Black Friday has also deterred consumers spending even in October! It seems incredible that those traders who promoted discounts so enthusiastically in 2014 did not realise that today’s consumer has a good memory. Why buy at full-price in October or early November when you know that there will be bargains galore on November 27 and beyond?
These practitioners of the giveaway clearly have forgotten recent history. Discounting cannot any more be kettled into a tight period on the calendar. Deals are a drug to which too many consumers are addicted. And they have been introduced to this shopping narcotic by short-sighted brands and retailers.
This year I have been told (slightly unconvincingly) by a number of retailers and brands that they will only be getting involved in Black Friday “strategically”, meaning that they will use the weekend of madness to shift some buyers’ mistakes that probably won’t sell until the post-Christmas Sales anyway. The interesting thing will be to see how aggressively and prominently such “strategic” offers are promoted. Any sort of association with Black Friday is, for me, A Bad Thing.
I much prefer the approach of those brands and retailers who have assured me that they will do nothing about Black Friday this year. They will ignore it, remaining haughtily aloof and unengaged. They will maintain trust and honesty with their consumers. They will remain confident that they have the right products at the right prices – and isn’t that what history tells us good retailing is all about?
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