Browse the headlines over the past 18 months and it becomes clear that British retail is in a difficult place. Figures published by the British Retail Consortium showed that retail in the United Kingdom had suffered its worst January for sales since 2013. Commentators described a gloomy state of affairs on the high street. It seemed everyone agreed that the so-called retail apocalypse was claiming its first victims.
The ‘retail apocalypse’
But there are those who disagree. Some retailers and commentators say there’s no need to stock up on tinned goods and take to the bunker. Retail, commentators say, is only undergoing a redefining, and this “retail apocalypse” will be remembered as a hinge moment in the evolution of high-street shopping—the birth pangs of a new, creative and exciting British retail sector based on technology.
Such an idea, however, will offer little comfort to those who work at Toys ‘R’ Us or Maplin, which have already collapsed into administration. Nor will it please those employed by House of Fraser or Mothercare, who have closed more than 80 branches between them in an effort to survive.
Clearly, British retailers are struggling. The atmosphere of optimism brought about by England’s excellent performance in the World Cup and good weather that lasted all throughout the summer gave hope to the sector. But it was brief. And in such an unforgiving atmosphere, certain events take on special significance for retail.
One of these is Black Friday. It’s arguably the most important shopping event in the calendar. It’s an American import—Black Friday traditionally falls on the day after Thanksgiving—but it still generates enthusiasm among UK shoppers. This year, it falls on 23rd November, and shops including John Lewis, Argos, GAME and most major supermarkets are expected to slash prices. Some retailers will prolong sales for a further day or two (explaining references to “Black Friday Weekend”) but generally retailers offer cut-price items for 24 hours only.
To understand its significance to the retail sector in 2018, it’s worth turning the clock back. The idea of Black Friday supposedly came about when, after an entire year of operating “in the red”, stores in the U.S. took a gamble and dropped prices dramatically. A shopping spree of such scale took place that these ailing stores were lifted “into the black’” Such a story will embolden Britain’s struggling retailers, many of which are clinging on for dear life, commercially speaking.
But Black Friday’s origin story is just that—a story. Competing theories as to how the event came to be abound. There’s a chance, for example, that “Black Friday” was coined by police officers in Philadelphia to describe the chaos caused by large crowds of shoppers. Many more people believe that the whole thing was a PR stunt conceived in the 1980s.
A real phenomenon
But PR stunt or not, Black Friday is now a real phenomenon. And retailers in the UK may be hoping that it will provide the boost they need to stay standing. What Americans call the “Holiday Season” can be responsible for up to 20 per cent of a retailer’s annual sales, and Black Friday plays a major role in that.
Industry experts and commentators will no doubt say that the boost retailers experience on Black Friday and in the later part of this year is only a stay of execution. But retailers will be hoping that the cash injection sustains them while they adapt to the new digital era. It could also give them the resources to make the necessary changes with greater speed and efficiency.
All this has the potential to be undermined by the changing public perception of Black Friday. In 2017, there was a noticeable loss of enthusiasm for the event. One viral video showed retail staff opening the doors to their store at the crack of dawn—only for a single, slightly confused person, to walk in.
Meanwhile, commentators and news outlets have been warning the public that Black Friday’s sales are “not all they seem”: though excited shoppers assume that the prices they see represent a drop from the usual price, consumer watchdogs say that such items are often cheaper on other days of the year.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Black Friday has special significance in the current climate of British retail. For those hit hardest by the changes of the past few years, it may not be enough to ensure their survival, but there will be others who hope it will be the stimulus they need to move forward and thrive in this brave new digital world.