Comment: Black Friday far from gloomy

Martin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan
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THAT unfailing barometer of Middle Britain, John Lewis, has provided more evidence that the shape of Christmas trading is changing. The retailer revealed yesterday that sales peaked at the end of November, the imported stateside phenomenon of a Black Friday customer surge after the Thanksgiving holiday in America happening like clockwork.

By comparison, John Lewis said that last week, the last full trading week before Christmas, sales fell 2.4 per cent year-on-year.

The new festive template that seems to have developed is one of shoppers either flooding the shops and internet in late November as bargain prices kick in, or leaving it to the very last two or three days before Christmas.

The popularity of those last few days before Christmas to do the festive shopping may be a mixture of the sheer procrastination that affects a lot of the population – often followed by manic stress – or a subliminal hope desperate retailers will have cut prices again at the eleventh hour.

However, between Black Friday and its younger siblings of Manic or Mayhem Mondays in earlier December etc and the delayed clock-striking-midnight customer rush something of a hiatus develops. Last week’s John Lewis sales, for instance, were up 6.5 per cent at £160.6 million on the previous week.

The increasing move to online Christmas buying also gains momentum every year, it seems, with John Lewis’s internet sales up 5.5 per cent year on year, and click and collect orders surging nearly a third.

Tellingly, electricals and home technology sales were down 10.8 per cent, a pretty clear sign of the growing influence of Black Friday for shoppers.

In short, retailing has undergone a systemic change in the past few years, nowhere more so than at Christmas time. It has nothing to do with cyclical economic pressures or austerity.

It is more an adaptation by savvy customers to the ever-larger footprint of the online delivery channel. And, secondly, retailers almost en masse seizing on the previously somewhat under-used potential of late November and early December through an at times irritatingly contrived marketing phenomenon of giving specific trading days excitable epithets to drum up sales.

Festive season not sweet for Thorntons

A RETAILER that can only dream of the resilience of John Lewis (see above) is chocolate maker Thorntons. A profit warning from the company yesterday took a lot of the gloss off the progress it has made in focusing on its commercial channels while closing dozens of its own stores.

The shares fell 23 per cent as Thorntons partly blamed a big reduction in demand from the major supermarket groups, who also took in stock later than expected.

It indicates that switching the group’s main focus away from its own stores to different commercial channels may have some cost advantages, but is not a panacea for its challenges.

Apart from its trading problems at the minute, Thorntons has also had problems at its main new warehouse in Derbyshire, resulting in lost and late revenues. In retail, it never rains but it pours.

The timing of the profits warning is particularly poor as the festive season is when a business like Thorntons should really come into its own.

The turnaround has hit significant headwinds, and the jury will be out for a while on its success.

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