Black Friday: Shifting its Centre of Gravity

Ahead of Black Friday 2018, Tim Denison traces the history of a retail event that has evolved into a global phenomenon. But what is different now to previous years, what can retailers learn, and what shape can we expect Black Friday to take in the future?

Black Friday: its heritage

From humble beginnings in Philadelphia some 50 years ago, “Black Friday” has become a global retail phenomenon thanks largely to the internet and the media. The Sales extravaganza was originally conceived as a one-day bargain bonanza in shops, to be held on the day after Thanksgiving Day in America, designed to kick-start the Christmas shopping season. In actual fact, it only became a national US fixture in the 1990s and only surpassed the Saturday before Christmas Day as the busiest shopping day of the year there in 2005. But since then it hasn’t looked back. In 2011 Walmart controversially opened its stores on the evening of Thanksgiving Day, breaking the midnight curfew for the first time. Today it is no longer a 24-hour national sprint, but a multi-day international marathon loved by the media awestruck by the speed and spread of its advance. Black Friday is no longer a store-based event with Cyber Monday now following on its tail as its online counter-part. Such is the omni-channel nature of retailing today that the promotional period has melded into one.

Five steps to success

Every year there are new lessons to be learnt from Black Friday. Getting it wrong can have serious consequences for a retailer, given its size and its profile with the media. Our top five steps to a successful campaign are as follows:

  1. When it comes to Black Friday, there is no such thing as over-planning. Determine well in advance what to promote, when to promote and how to deliver in a proactive, managed way. And work hand-in-hand with suppliers to avoid nasty surprises and knee-jerk reactions.
  2. Agility is key. Black Friday is a disruptive event where demand is impossible to predict. Social media has the capability to spread news (good or bad) with alarming speed. It can mobilise the shopping masses to descend on the best offers like plagues of locusts sweeping through fields of crops.
  3. Manage shopper numbers entering stores. Overcrowding invariably damages the customer experience and risks grabbing the news headlines for all the wrong reasons.
  4. Stress-test logistics’ capacity and end-to-end execution. The short window of heavy discounting can create unprecedented demand and all too easily overwhelm the normal running of operations. As online shopping has an intrinsically more important contribution to make to Black Friday it’s not just building headroom into stock, fulfilment and payments facilities, but resilience and capacity into website search and content services.
  5. Prepare to put crisis management into practice. Operational failures and brutal media exposure can risk damaging reputations if they are not dealt with speedily and effectively.