IT ALWAYS seems to start in America. From push-button phones to automated cash dispensers, the worldwide web to marketing psycho-babble, a development or trend begins across the Atlantic and embeds itself in the UK and European landscape within a few years. Metaphorically, what California says today, Cumbernauld or Croydon says the day after tomorrow. So it is with Black Friday.
Last week’s much stronger than expected retail sales figures are further proof that the American shopping phenomenon is now hugely popular in the UK. Largely fuelled by Black Friday buying, particularly of electrical goods, November’s retail sales over here were up a hefty 5 per cent on a year ago, and up 1.7 per cent on October. That far exceeded City expectations and gave the lie to Asda’s assertion that it was not taking part in the “flash flood” buying splurge on the Friday after US Thanksgiving because corporate and customer fatigue had set in around the event.
As Asda is owned by Wal-Mart of the States, and was a trailblazer in bringing Black Friday to these shores, its U-turn generated a lot of publicity. But it seems you never go broke underestimating the decorum and reserve of the UK shopper. Bargains are king, storm the shops, get that cursor moving around that retail website!
One of the oldest tricks in the book is for retailers to butter up the punters with self-serving praise of their “savvy-ness”. Translation: you guys are so astute we need to be on our toes because you will take your money elsewhere if we come over all high-minded about one day of mayhem. So it is with shouty Black Friday websites. Feel the width.
But it seems to work. Most retailers now believe it is a given that the late-November bargain-fest is here to stay. If that means there is a fall-off in subsequent trade before Christmas – what one retailer last week called the sales “valley” after the “peak” – then so be it.
To be fair, in recent years high street sales in the few weeks leading up to Christmas have not been great, anyway. Even before Black Friday arrived here with a brash whoop and a holler, UK shoppers were increasingly postponing their buying until the post-Christmas sales kicked in from Boxing Day. As a result, a growing minority of retailers – fashion chain Next comes to mind – have girded their loins and refused to budge on price in this festive run-up period in recent years. It has cost them some top-line growth, but protected profit margins. But it takes strong nerves, particularly when your competitors are the likes of price-conscious Primark, Aldi and Poundland.
We will soon see how the sector fared yesterday, the last Saturday before Christmas and traditionally THE big shopping day of the festive season. It is likely that strong UK employment and the rise in real wages will have provided a shopping tailwind to the day. But, if not, retailers can console themselves with the gold from Black Friday and cast eyes to America for the next big thing. As sure as eggs is eggs, it will come. «