Should The UK Ban Black Friday?

If you ask MPs Greg Holland and Sir Peter Bottomley, the answer is a resounding yes. They’ve tabled a motion in the House of Commons that calls on UK retailers to stop acknowledging Black Friday in 2015 and beyond, citing its negative effect on Christmas retail sales. They’re getting support from a surprising source. Andy Street, CEO of the storied John Lewis brand of department stores, is not a fan of Black Friday. Despite the fact that John Lewis reported its Black Friday ecommerce sales were up around 20% compared to last year, Street sees the emphasis on a single day of shopping as bad for business. As he told The Mirror:

“Standing back from it all, you have to say, is it good for the industry to concentrate so much business in that one day and then have a relatively flat period afterwards? The answer is probably not.”

While Black Friday’s history in the UK is relatively brief, the practice has been been gaining traction in recent years, with the likes of Asda and Argos getting on board. Because Black Friday isn’t linked to a bank holiday in the UK, most shopping happens online. This year, UK Black Friday online sales were up a whopping 37.5% over 2013 with a total of £1.65B spent online and in stores.

The problem for retailers is what happens after Black Friday. The answer is not much. While Black Friday is the unofficial kick-off to the holiday shopping season in the US, it’s largely a self-contained event in the UK, with little spillover into December. In fact, this year, British retailers experienced their worst December since 2008. While overall spending increased 2.1% year-over-year in November, spending in December rose just 1% compared to last year, with fashion and footwear retailers taking a particularly hard hit in the form of a 2.2% decline in sales. Retail industry observers speculate that the Black Friday phenomenon led shoppers to shift their holiday buying to November to take advantage of bargains on items they would typically buy at full price in December.

While John Lewis improved on its 2013 Black Friday performance and managed to grow its sales almost 5% in the five weeks leading up Christmas when compared to last year’s figures, other big retailers weren’t as lucky. Marks & Spencer’s Q4 general merchandise sales were down 5.8% in the lead-up to Christmas and the famed retailer experienced problems keeping up with order shipping volume related to Black Friday, even temporarily suspending its website’s click-and-collect option.

Now that shoppers have gotten a taste for deep discounts and door crasher specials, turning back the tide on Black Friday will be difficult for UK retailers. While the excesses of the event are unlikely to grow to match those of its American counterpart (the lack of time off to shop, eat turkey and watch American football is a big factor), brands still have to contend with customers who will increasingly expect significant sales coupled with a streamlined purchase process. What worked in the past won’t work now and what works in-store won’t work online or on mobile.

If Black Friday does stick around, the priority for UK mobile and ecommerce retailers — including big names like Tesco, Boots and Argos, which all had site outages this year — should be providing a smoother, more reliable online shopping experience for the virtual crowds. As David McCorquodale, KPMG’s Head of Retail put it, “Resolving these issues must be a priority: consumers go online to avoid queues, not join them.”

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