Black Friday is the biggest day for retail sales in the United States – the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season beginning with a huge, one-day discount shopping spree as Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving equivalent of Boxing Day. Over 133 million consumers shop either in store or online on that one single day.

The Chinese retail equivalent goes several steps further. Singles Day – an annual celebration of single life turned discount extravaganza – takes place every 11 November. The “anti-Valentine’s Day” was started by university students in the early 90s and was pounced upon as a commercial opportunity by Chinese online behemoth Alibaba in 2009. Since then it’s enjoyed almost incomprehensible levels of success – this year’s efforts saw $1 billion spent in the eight minutes after midnight, and 24 hours later this figure had risen to $14.3 billion.

Back home in the UK we’re still finding our way when it comes to these one-day events. Asda – spearheaded by its American parent company Walmart, seeking to replicate the success of its US model – brought Black Friday to our shores in 2013. But only two years later, after scuffles in supermarkets and cannibalising its own sales, the retailer has come out and said it won’t be taking part again – “shopper fatigue” cited as the official reason, though brand damage and “staff fatigue” are perhaps more likely to be the case.

So far, no more major retailers have followed suit, though there have been changes on last year. Argos is encouraging pre-registration in an attempt to avoid its website crashing and queues for online access that have so far been a feature of Black Friday. The police have urged retailers to beef up their security while John Lewis boss Andy Street has warned of the financial challenge the event brings, not that his retailer has a choice – its “never knowingly undersold” policy means it has to match its competitors on price.

It’s interesting that our home grown attempts to mirror Black Friday haven’t taken off in the way many retailers would have liked. The logistical challenges and barrage of less-than-positive press aren’t hugely different to what you might see in the States (though a well-documented fight over a television in an Asda store in Wembley last year pales into insignificance compared with the death of a Walmart employee in Long Island in 2008).

Perhaps it’s down to a lack of natural evolution for our version of Black Friday.  In the States, it follows a holiday.  In China, Singles Day is tied to a day where the whole point is that you celebrate yourself – what better incentive to spend a bit of money?  In the UK it’s been superimposed on a normal Friday in November, dragging us kicking and screaming (sometimes literally) away from our day-to-day lives and into the world of retail.

The British have always loved a bargain, but retailers aren’t prepared to provide one at any cost.  The Black Friday concept has appeared on our shores too fast and too suddenly, and retailers haven’t yet found the balance between protecting their reputation and enhancing their profit margins. 

With industry experts suggesting that the 27 November will be Britain’s first ever £1 billion online shopping day, it’s unlikely that the UK’s version of Black Friday will disappear soon.  But with retailers sticking by the maxim of ‘go big or go home’ it’s not tackling its image problem, and many consumers will find last year’s footage off-putting.

If Black Friday is to become a staple of the our retail calendar, retailers need to think carefully about what shoppers are really after and make sure they’re communicating it properly – managing our disappointment if the discount televisions are all sold out.  The key question is how can they do this – perhaps creating a quintessentially British Black Friday experience with fewer fist-fights in the aisles and more ‘form an orderly queue’ is a good place to start. 

Alyona Levitin, senior account executive

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