In the mid to late 1980s the phrase ‘Black Friday’ was spread across the United States by retailers looking to cash-in on what was already an unofficially recognised shopping spree. After the end of World War Two more and more Americans would call in sick the day after Thanksgiving in order to give themselves a four day weekend, so much so that many companies began to add this day as an extra holiday. With many retailers remaining open, this Friday quickly became known as the perfect opportunity to beat the December rush and buy early Christmas gifts. Businesses became wise to the potential of a monumental increase in sales and began to offer products at a discounted price in order to gain an advantage on their competition. When ‘Black Friday’ was spread across the entire country, it was marketed as the first day of the year that businesses turned a profit - thus moving from the red into the black. This story stuck and ‘Black Friday’ grew into the global phenomenon we know today.
But the phrase has not always had such positive connotations. Throughout the 1960s ‘Black Friday’ was synonymous with the day after Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, but for reasons of a much more unsavoury nature. Hordes of shoppers and tourists would flood the city, both in search of festive bargains and in preparation for the annual Army/Navy football game that took place that weekend. The pollution from the congested traffic, the huge police effort required for crowd control and the increase in shoplifters taking advantage of the general bedlam all led to the term ‘Black Friday’ being locally coined to describe the fourth Friday in November.
Few people stop to consider whether BFCM really is good for business and fewer still consider whether it is good for people
In the 21st century, ‘Black Friday’ is an annual event of an ever-lengthening period of time (at present taking place over 4 days and incorporating ‘Cyber Monday’, but for some it takes place throughout the entire month of November) that consistently smashes U.S records to do with most amount of money taken on a single day, most amount of people shopping on a single day, most amount of money spent online etc. Many businesses consider it the most important weekend of the calendar year, the weekend to make-or-break in terms of profit, however it is important to remember that the original use of ‘Black Friday’ was with a sense of trepidation rather than excitement. As ‘Black Friday’ increases in size, as the discounts become greater and start earlier, as the images of frenzied shoppers become more extreme, should the phrase not remain a source of fear and anxiety as it was in Philadelphia all those years ago?
Image taken from Business Insider
A quick internet search will provide a myriad of articles about how best to prepare for the ‘Black Friday/Cyber Monday’ weekend - how to deal with the increase in store traffic, how to process the increase in orders, how far in advance to prepare and buy stock, everything you could hope to know is out there. Few people stop to consider, however, whether BFCM really is good for business and fewer still consider whether it is good for people. Yes, there are more potential customers shopping over this weekend than any other weekend in the year, so yes it is possible that you will see an increase in traffic and sales - but this is a very short term gain. It is unlikely that any bargain-hunting BFCM customer will show loyalty to your business or brand beyond the holiday weekend. These customers are immersed in the BFCM collective quest for the biggest deals and best discounts, and simply failing to satiate their appetite for bargains will be enough to cause their prompt departure.
Those in favour of BFCM will argue that businesses cannot afford to take the risk of not participating. If you fail to seize the opportunity of such a huge number of shoppers, your competitors will reap the rewards and take away valuable business. BFCM is such a critical boost to end of year sales that, for some, even to consider not participating is simply unthinkable. It could be said that BFCM is the Holy Grail of retail - but, like the Grail itself, is this prize illusory? There are a number of factors to take into account when considering whether BFCM is profitable:
- Stock levels are a gamble - if BFCM excitement takes over and a mirage of eager shoppers fills your head, each one desperate to be the first online to buy your product, you could be forgiven for increasing your order of stock. But if reality comes crashing down around you and sales do not perform as planned, what are you left with? Surplus stock and a loss of money. On the other hand if you do not order more stock and your discounted sales do well, will you have enough to still make a profit whilst selling at a reduced price? It’s a tightrope.
- The competition during BFCM is so fierce that companies are consistently pushing back the start date for their discounts, and pushing down the reduced prices, meaning others must sell products at a cheaper price for a longer period in order to keep up. In this consumerist game of limbo, how low can you really afford to go?
- Do customers prohibit their November spending in preparation for BFCM? If so, does this result in more profit, or simply profit pinpointed on a single weekend?
- Similarly with December profits, if people buy all of their Christmas gifts from you at a discounted price in November, will they be returning for more in December? Are you not simply transferring profits from one month to another?
- If your business model pivots on the takings of a single weekend in the calendar year, is it not better to alter the model rather than take the risk of not performing as well as you could during this high-octane retail binge?
Some will not be convinced. The fact is that for a lot of businesses the BFCM prize is not an illusion and every year they make massive profits - and these potential rewards far outweigh the risks of getting involved. So let’s change tack: BFCM offers huge riches, but at what cost? Not a monetary cost but a cost in terms of our principles and ethics.
More people are aware of their environmental impact and the impact of the mass production of goods. More people are aware of the obscene inequality that is rife all across our planet
It is now anticipated that every year BFCM will provide fresh videos and images of utter pandemonium at shopping centres around the world as people push, shove, scream and squabble over the discounted goods dangling in front of them. Each year these images get more extreme and each year they are being met with wider discussions about the morality of such seemingly mindless consumerism and the effect it is having both on our planet and the people inhabiting it. In 2018 there is more information circling online than ever before. More people are aware of their environmental impact and the impact of the mass production of goods. More people are aware of the obscene inequality that is rife all across our planet. The images of manic shoppers shown on news broadcasts, buying products not because they need them but because they are discounted, will either be followed or preceded by stories of hopeless poverty, of famine, of sweatshops, of polar ice caps melting, and of refugees from war-torn areas of the world. The stark contrast should be clear to even the most ignorant members of ‘Western’ society - BFCM is the pinnacle of consumerism and, for a growing number of people, businesses that blindly engage with no consideration of the global impact are complicit in the evils it represents.
Do you consider sustainability and the promotion of human welfare to be more important than profit?
The argument against BFCM from a financial point of view can be met with strong and considerable counterclaims - getting involved is a risk, but everything in business is a risk and there are innumerable examples of businesses having great success during the annual event. The argument from an ethical point of view, however, has no justified response. There is no moral high-ground to be found with blindly engaging in BFCM, and if you are aware of the ethical implications you have the choice to either acknowledge them, whilst simultaneously ignoring them and acting in the same way, or to acknowledge them and subsequently act accordingly. If you are of the latter group, what is the course of action to take?
One option is to refuse to have any involvement with BFCM at all, but whilst you might earn some kudos it is unlikely this inaction will bring about much positive change. As ethical discussions and considerations are being pushed further to the fore of conversation, more and more customers want their retailers to have actively recognisable principles and standards - they want to see values, as well as value. BFCM is the perfect opportunity to show customers that your brand cares not only about profit but about humanitarian issues. By doing so you will distinguish yourself from the competition, establish a strong brand image and identity, and build the foundations of a loyal and returning customer base.
Image taken from Good360
So if you do choose not to get involved with BFCM let your customers know why. Tell them if you think the annual event is morally bankrupt and make suggestions for how people can rally against it - suggest involvement with Giving Tuesday, and take the lead by organising an event within your own company. Giving Tuesday is a relatively new tradition that is growing year on year and stands in direct opposition to the philosophy of BFCM by encouraging people to give away their time or possessions for free on the Tuesday after BFCM. Alternatively, create an email campaign advising your customers about the dangers of BFCM and reminding them to keep moderation and sustainability in mind - “its not a good deal if you don’t need it” is a phrase being heard more and more as the festive shopping season looms again. Whilst this will not provide direct financial gain, the image of a conscientious brand is invaluable in today’s world.
On the flip side, some brands have shown that it is possible to be conscientious and still offer discounted products during BFCM by doing so in order to raise money for charitable causes. Patagonia is arguably the most famous, who in 2016 donated 100% of the money taken during Black Friday to environmental causes.
Image taken from Patagonia on Thames Street facebook page
Similarly, FatFace donated a large chunk of the profits made during BFCM to local charities and Pieminister created the Black Pieday during which they gave away surplus stock in return for donations to the homelessness charity Shelter. Some might say that despite the charitable nature of these actions they do nothing by way of combating the popularity of BFCM, making the companies responsible for them merely an accessory after the fact. Whilst this is true, a response would be that it is clear BFCM is not going away any time soon, so why not use it as a vehicle to raise money for one of the many deserving causes that are present throughout the world? Clearly the issue has no definitive answer, it is up to the individual to decide where they stand.
Hopefully by now it is clear that preparation for BFCM does not involve creating intricate plans of the weekend, detailing when each discount will be announced. Nor is it to conduct load testing in your e-commerce channels to ensure they can cope with the increased traffic. Preparation for BFCM is much more reflective and should involve a consideration of what your beliefs and values are as a company. Do you consider sustainability and the promotion of human welfare to be more important than profit? If so, use BFCM as an opportunity to prove it.