Black Gold?

Black Friday shopperFriday 27 November is now just over a week away – and, as you no doubt know, that means a flurry of money being spent online and in-store.

In the UK alone, Adobe predicts that Black Friday purchases online will hit £474m. According to IMRG, the figure will actually exceed £1.1bn.

Last year, desktop still ruled the roost as shoppers picked up deals from their desk – mobile accounted for just 38 per cent of UK Black Friday traffic, according to Affilinet, while IBM places mobiles share in the US at 46.7 per cent – but could all be about to change. Next Friday, according to research from Media iQ, 33 per cent of UK consumers will buy a sales item from a mobile device.

And its not just purchases which are on the up. The event has grown in the public consciousness in recent years, especially in the UK. According to Union Metrics, the conversation around Black Friday on Twitter is predicted to hit 4-5m tweets this year, an increase of 50 per cent on 2014.

That conversation, however, isnt necessarily all positive, and some retailers have reacted by stepping back from Black Friday entirely. US outdoor clothes store REI has turned its lack of a Black Friday sale into a marketing campaign, closing its 143 stores for the day and encouraging customers to skip the sales with the hashtag #OptOutside.

When the campaign kicked off, it attracted more than 87,000 tweets in just three days, according to Union Metrics, though the conversation around the hashtag has since slowed down and been rapidly overtaken by tweets about Black Friday in general.

REI Black Friday OptOutsideIn the UK, meanwhile, Walmart-owned supermarket Asda – which found itself associated with some of the events worst excesses after a video of customers fighting over discounted products in one of its stores went viral last year – announced that it would not be running any specific Black Friday offers.

President and CEO Andy Clarke denied that the bad publicity was the motivator, though, saying in a statement: “The decision to step away from Black Friday is not about the event itself.” According to Clarke, spreading out offers across the festive shopping season is better for customers, who “don’t want to be held hostage to a day or two of sales”.

Notably, like REI, Asdas strategy is based on its bricks-and-mortar stores. The supermarket has never run Black Friday sales online, and while REI will be closing its distribution centre, its eCommerce site will still be available. Its not hard to see why. Last year, Asda reportedly saw discounted high-value items actually drawing footfall away from its core grocery products, and most of the bad press around the day has been focused exclusively on in-store chaos.

“Focusing on a digital and mobile strategy in the run-up to Black Friday can avoid frenzied shopping experiences by encouraging digital shopping and offers, enabling a buy online, pick up in-store approach,” says Urban Airship EMEA MD Nigel Arthur. “Taking the experience online can not only help avoid the scenes of last year but also help retailers build genuine engagement and loyalty with their customers.”black-friday-target.jpgSo is Black Friday a pitfall-free opportunity for online retailers? Well, not quite.

“Last year we heard a lot of reports of sites queueing, or even going down,” says Patrick Munden, head of marketing at Salmon.

In the UK, Tesco, Argos and Boots were among the retailers whose websites struggled under the weight of Black Friday traffic. In the US, electronics store Best Buys site was taken down entirely after a record traffic surge left shoppers unable to purchase items – though notably its mobile site remained available.

Salmons Munden points out that growing awareness of the day, and consumers eagerness to avoid manic shopfloors, might drive even more traffic to sites this year – but is confident that businesses are better prepared to face it. “A lot of retailers have got their act together, and started planning a year in advance,” he says.

Its also worth noting that negative experiences of Black Friday seem to have done little to dissuade shoppers, at least according to an ICM Unlimited study which found that 49 per cent of those who were dissatisfied with their shopping experience in 2014 still intend to make a purchase during this years event.

Beyond the specific challenge of spikes in traffic, though, eCommerce brands also face many of the same larger issues as their bricks-and-mortar equivalents. Many retailers, both online and off, have seen their sales falling off dramatically after the Black Friday spike, allegedly contributing to the lowest-ever growth in online trade last December, of just five per cent.

Amazon Lightning Deals Black Friday“Stark discounts are a proven tactic for acquiring new customers and encouraging repeat purchase and visits from existing customers, but should be treated with an element of caution,” says Media iQ global head of marketing Noyonika Bhaduri. “In the long-term, brands must carefully consider their discounting strategy to avoid damaging their relationship with existing customers.”

“These price wars are eating into profits and are doing more harm than good,” agrees Dan Wagner, CEO and founder of Powa Technologies.

But with Black Friday now embedded into the public consciousness and growing every year, whats the alternative?

Well, it could be as simple as spreading it all out. Offering deals at different times throughout the day can help spread the load. In the UK, Amazon has distributed its lightning deals over a 10-day period, though it will still be running Black Friday promotions as usual in the US, where the day coincides with a common holiday.

Black Friday doesnt necessarily have to be retailers biggest sales day, especially in other countries. In July Amazon launched Prime Day, a sale exclusively for member of its Prime scheme, which led to 18 per cent more purchases globally than the previous Black Friday. And earlier this month, Chinas Singles Day saw $7bn of mobile purchases made on Alibaba sites in the first 14 hours.

So its possible that, in future, the record figures we report will be for an entire week or even month of sales. Its less sexy, but it might just make more sense.