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Insights

Five years on, Black Friday still thrives in the UK – whether retailers like it or not

Black Friday is always forecast to be bigger and better than ever, and in the face of heightened online spending, high-street retailers must embrace omnichannel if they are to keep up with internet-only rivals.

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Five years on, Black Friday still thrives in the UK – whether retailers like it or not

For all the negative coverage Black Friday continues to attract from its many critics, its presence in the UK has not only endured, but steadily grown – and whether people liked it or not, it had its biggest-ever sales extravaganza on its fifth anniversary during November 2018.

Earlier in the month, Amazon announced that its Black Friday spectacular would be better than ever before, and that the big day itself would only act as an anchor; its sales period ran between November 16th and 25th, while it was all but guaranteed that Amazon would spearhead a separate event for Cyber Monday (November 26th).

This shouldn’t have been a surprise for anyone; after all, Amazon was responding to demand as well as expectation. Statistics published the year before by Barclaycard, which now processes almost half of all debit and credit card transactions in the UK, estimated that Black Friday spending had risen by 8% when compared to 2016 sales.

At the same time, analysts cited by this Guardian coverage claimed that the number of shoppers in retail parks and high streets on the day itself had dropped by 8%, in part due to prior discounting from electronics and fashion businesses.

The demand for the high-street shopping experience was once again losing out to online sales during a critical period, and while there are many reasons for this shift, the high street can’t afford to ignore the event – and must use an omnichannel strategy to maintain a grip on Black Friday and remain competitive.

Limited resistance

Black Friday was launched in the UK in 2013 by American giants Amazon and Walmart – the latter using Asda as its host – dividing public opinion immediately. Its critics were somewhat vindicated by what quickly followed.

In the first two years alone, shoppers created eye-opening scenes, whether it was a man getting pinned down in a car park outside of Bristol Asda after trying to buy two 60-inch TVs, or a stampede for 40-inch Polaroid TVs in Wembley Asda, questionably encouraged by dancing cheerleaders dressed in black.

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So it was unsurprising when Asda, uncomfortable with the bunfights it orchestrated, decided to axe its Black Friday deals ahead of 2015. By doing so, it joined a handful of retailers who decided against Black Friday from the very start, most notably Fat Face, whose chief executive Anthony Thompson called it “bonkers” and [said it was “bad for customers, […] bad for business [and] bad for UK retail”](https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42093624).

Yet for all the negative, annual editorials about Black Friday – which still rolled in as we published this – the anti-Black Friday brigade’s high-street ranks have far from swelled. B&Q was the only major player to withdraw in 2018, after commissioning research which found that consumers were more willing to trust retailers which offer “low prices throughout the year more than those that run frequent sales”.

Yet these findings aren’t quite as damning as B&Q, a company you don’t exactly associate with a Black Friday extravaganza, makes out. If anything, the figures underline why the high street is still forced to engage with the event.

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Shoppers still see Black Friday as a must-buy day

B&Q’s research found that nearly half (46%) of shoppers didn’t plan to shop in 2018’s Black Friday sales, while a further 43% said they “often or always returned items after regretting purchases made in sales”. While these stats sound shocking on the outset, you only have to look at the inverse of the findings to find a more important trend:

  • Over half of UK consumers (54%) specifically planned to shop on Black Friday 2018 – a sales event that was only five years old in the UK.
  • While shoppers will always regret purchases, the critical 43% could potentially form all but 3% of the 46% of Black Friday cynics in the survey. It’s safe to say this isn’t the case, but regretting one purchase in, say, four is hardly a new thing in the fashion and electronics sectors – two of the biggest players on Black Friday.

The strategy of backing away from Black Friday may have worked for B&Q, a predominantly out-of-town retailer. However, huge organisations were predicting a continuing upward trend that fell in line with Barclaycard’s 2017 findings.

Same old players, brand new format

The phrase “Blackvember” may be a clunky portmanteau, but don’t be surprised if it becomes the new phrase for the sales season. As we saw in 2018, Amazon already accepted that Black Friday was just the central day of an otherwise long-running sales event.

And would you believe it, this attitude was mimicked by its former Black Friday launch partner, Asda. After famously turning its back on the day itself after all those aisle-based scrapes, it launched its “Green is the New Black” multi-day sales event, clearly understanding that it needs something to respond to the evolving appetite for deals in November.

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The move made sense. Now the novelty has worn off, British businesses are coming to the realisation that while Black Friday is a federal holiday in the US, it’s a regular working day here. What’s more, payday for many doesn’t fall until the weekend after the big day – so spreading the deals across two or three weeks is the best way to access customer funds, especially ahead of Christmas.

It’s a model the high street needs to replicate, and must draw on an omnichannel approach: capture shoppers online, then bolster in-store sales.

The high street needs to roll those omnichannel sleeves up

November and December have always tested businesses, but it’s the perfect time to employ, test and improve omnichannel abilities – especially with the internet being used by more people than ever to locate deals.

If you’re running Black Friday on the high street, what should you do to maximise this potential?

Buy stock specifically for Black Friday

Getting shoppers through the door is most of the battle on Black Friday, but you don’t have to discount products on already-tight margins to do this. An investment in products that can be turned over for a meagre profit – or even just a guaranteed even break – still gets shopping-primed customers into your store, who can then get more out of other products you sell. Promoting these both online and offline will open you up to all sorts of new shoppers, who you can reach from repeat in-store visits, or through newsletters via email sign-ups to your online store.

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It’s not a particularly new strategy, but it works. However, the focus shouldn’t be on making a profit: Black Friday isn’t as much of an opportunity to sell products as it is to create new relationships. Black Friday-specific stock will not only improve footfall but potentially attract new custom from open-minded consumers who may never have interacted with your brand before and who will go on to buy into your deeper-margined inventory.

Incentivise click and collect

If you can’t beat them, join them. If you still have to charge for click and collect for one reason or another, consider waiving it for Black Friday (or “Blackvember”) in order to get more people into store. If you can, consider lowering prices too, subject to click and collect.

People will always check for comparative deals online, so if you can offer a special price if your customer opts for click and collect – pushing you to the top of a price checker – chances are you’ll make much more from in-store purchases during their visit (something we found in our 2018 State of Omnichannel Retail Report).

Standard online purchases still have the very real drawback of being subject to delivery, often arriving days after the initial buzz of buying has worn off. Giving people an excuse to get it on the day in person, when the excitement for Black Friday is high, is something many customers will happily go for – particularly if over 75% of them planned on shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores, as per BlackFriday.Global.

Make your store as experiential as possible

To separate yourself from online retailers, use the one thing in your arsenal you can guarantee they don’t offer: an in-store experience. If you’re able to host something during the course of the sales season that ties into a sale itself – whether that’s a book signing, fashion show, music performance or product demonstration, you can show what makes your brand worth seeing in person.

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Combining this with a full focus on great customer service, and enlisting extra people to help transactions run quickly and smoothly, could most definitely pay off, with the right combination of products and experiences.

Keep them coming back by spreading those deals

As Asda and Amazon understand, “Blackvember” is slowly becoming the shopping equivalent of an advent calendar: customers want to open doors or webpages regularly to see what treats lie in store on that day. Amazon Fashion even took this format to the high street with its pop-up, which we visited in September 2018 – it changed the layout and stock of the store so that people had another reason to return.

There’s a lot of irony in the fact that an ecommerce giant is pioneering a concept that businesses could have adopted a long time ago – and the fact it coupled its pop-up with different after-hours events only made it even better. It’s not too late to learn from this – the market is otherwise wide open for an ever-evolving high-street presence.

Whatever you do, don’t insult the customer with poor offers

While consumers love Black Friday, they’re also more than aware of the true value of offers, especially when they’re actively tracking a product. With this in mind, it’s critical you ensure your offers are genuinely great deals; consumers are savvy enough to know if a deal is something that competitors – or even you! – offer at other times of the year, and labelling a rerun of this sale with a Black Friday banner will insult their intelligence – and undermine your participation.

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As long as customers love Black Friday, so should you

One thing’s certain: it’s wrong to believe that cracks are appearing in the British house that Black Friday built. While this type of cynicism may have convinced many to pull back from this huge sales opportunity, the cracks aren’t because of serious, structurally devastating subsidence – they’re the types of hairline fractures you’d expect in any high-grade, new-build home that’s settling into its foundations. Black Friday is going nowhere.

Black Friday shouldn’t be relied upon by businesses to simply boost sales – but it should be used to build and maintain a following. If you’re not engaging with this hugely captive audience on such an important day, the outcome could be potentially devastating, especially as all major online sellers are stepping up their game.

Customers still absolutely love Black Friday, and as long as they think that way, the high street must respond to this demand. Many retailers may take a moral stance against it, but while some cynics may doff their cap at a retailer’s anti-Black Friday stance, these people are hardly the best target audience to be popular with.

Insights

The very real problem facing British retailers that nobody is talking about

Everyone hates slow websites, but retailers should hate them more than anyone else - after all, billions of pounds in revenue is being lost to poor web performance.

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The very real problem facing British retailers that nobody is talking about

Imagine this was the storefront of an open store – no branding, no window dressing, nobody greeting customers. Imagine the negative impression it would have. Visitors would be wondering whether it’s even open and would simply walk straight past.

This is the physical manifestation of a slow website: the white screen while visitors wait.

It goes without saying that everyone hates slow websites – I’m sure nobody needs convincing on that front – but billions of pounds in revenue is being lost by those who fail to prioritise web performance.

Boardrooms shouldn’t just focus on weekly financial targets, but on how much revenue they left on the table, and build speed targets into their weekly board-level metrics.

The cost of a slow website

It's been ten years since Amazon discovered a “1% decrease in revenue for every 100ms increase in load time”, and the scale of the problem has only become clearer since then.

Google’s latest research shows that web users rank the importance of website speed over anything else for user experience – even the ease of finding what they want!

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For those taking this advice on board, the results speak for themselves.

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These are all metrics that retailers track and analyse, but without clear visibility of web performance, low-hanging fruit for optimisation can be missed and fluctuations can be misattributed.

Leader of the pack

With this in mind, SHIFT set out to study 44 of the largest fashion retailers in the UK. After running multiple tests per day, over a seven-day period, it became clear that only a small minority of companies recognise web performance as a core part of their business strategy – the rest simply aren’t taking it seriously.

One retailer that does see the importance is Schuhas well as being a high-flyer in our recent RES report, Schuh’s website consistently loaded the fastest, and the comparison to the competition is stark. The below image illustrates how bad things really are for the industry: at the point Schuh’s website has completely loaded, 25 of the 44 retailers hadn’t even shown any signs of getting started, leaving the visitor to wonder if the website was offline:

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What’s more, 20 of these retailers didn’t render anything whatsoever within three seconds, even on a 4G connection – a startling figure given Google found that 53% of customers on mobile devices will leave if a page takes over three seconds to load.

Schuh’s success in this test is far from lucky. Stuart McMillan, deputy head of ecommerce at the business, has continuously pushed a performance-first approach fed by careful research. “It’s clear in our data: the slower someone’s session, the higher the bounce rate,” he tells SHIFT Magazine. “It’s not a vanity project; it’s about an experience that removes barriers to purchase.”

Meanwhile, third-placed Matalan’s director of ecommerce, Paul Hornby, speaks of the company’s constant focus on increasing convenience of both online and offline channels by valuing the importance of ecommerce’s role in “joining the two worlds”.

He continues: “If the website fails to deliver a fast and slick experience for the customer, this crucial link is undermined and the customer suffers. The ecommerce team here is always pushing to deliver the next breakthrough in customer experience online.”

It’s clear that these retailers use the very best practices to keep on top – and for underperforming rivals, a culture change is absolutely necessary if they’re to match these pioneers of performance.

To do so, three huge factors need to be considered.

Prioritising performance: putting it at the forefront of your strategy

1. Raise awareness

The first step to addressing any problem is recognising you have one.

If you’re not one of the best performing retailers above, Google has published a free tool that allows you to see how much revenue your site is losing from traffic you’ve already paid for.

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Understanding the size of this prize, then adding a rigorous speed metric to your weekly board-level reporting, is essential. Harry Roberts, who has worked with the likes of the BBC, NHS, UN, Financial Times, and Google, often finds in his consultancy work that prioritisation of the issue is regularly misconstrued by people at the top.

“I often find that senior and non-technical stakeholders believe performance to be a technical problem,” he explains. “It isn’t. It’s strategic, and needs business-level support and backing for it to be successful.”

For Schuh, it’s a regular talking point at every level. “We have a main ecommerce report that goes out to all key stakeholders in the business every week,” McMillan adds. “One page is on the technical performance of the site.”

It’s more important than ever to get the whole organisation pulling in the same direction. Businesses must give the ecommerce team a metric with which to safeguard against short-term decision-making that could have a negative impact on website performance.

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2. Robust measurement

Performance is as much about perception as it is reality; capturing how a website ‘feels’ to customers as it loads is tricky to measure at scale, and not all speed metrics are created equal.

‘Page load time’ often gets thrown around as a metric that sounds simple to understand, but in reality it means something different to everyone.

So, which metrics should we be analysing?

Start Render

  • When is it first apparent that the website has started to load and it’s not offline or broken?

SpeedIndex

  • How fast does the site load over time – does it load nothing meaningful then everything at once, or does it load more progressively, giving the customer something useful quickly, then enhancing from there?

First Meaningful Paint

  • When does the site first show something meaningful?

Hero Paint Time

  • How quickly does the most important element of a page appear?

Time-to-Interactive

  • When can the visitor start interacting with the website; scrolling, navigating, etc?

Individually, none of these metrics are silver bullets, but combining them together presents a clear picture of how a website loads.

It’s not enough just to consider what metrics we measure, though – we need to consider the environment in which we’re measuring them.

You need to understand your customer base, what devices they use, the kind of connectivity they are accustomed to, and even geographically where they are, as best you can – they’re all uncontrollable, but trackable, factors that impact performance.

“76% of our traffic comes from smartphones,” McMillan continues. “The trend has been clear for years. Site speed is of paramount importance on mobile; what use is amazing content if people get annoyed before they see it?”

Hornby agrees: “Mobile plays a huge part in that experience and so speed, especially over mobile networks, is a large part of our focus.”

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Testing website performance on a powerful desktop computer over a fibre connection at the office is not going to be a real-world test – a budget Android phone on flaky 3G may be more realistic.

These metrics can be analysed across a variety of different devices and connection strengths using a tool such as SpeedCurve (paid) or WebPageTest (free) – the best implementations will be RUM (Real User Monitoring), but even running some synthetic tests is a good start.

3. Continuous improvement

If you’re not moving forwards, you’re going backwards.

McMillan and his team certainly won’t be victims of arrogance regarding their table-topping performance right now. He explains: “We do love a league table at Schuh, and if we saw we were slower than some of our competitors, we’d be driven to improve.”

This is, without a doubt, the best attitude to have. Building regular performance improvements into your release schedule is vital. Without continuous advancement, you’ll always lag behind the competition.

The good news for traditional omnichannel retailers is that our analysis showed how plenty of pure-play retailers are not focused enough on performance either, meaning there’s a real chance to outperform them in this hugely critical area – but just remember, a lot of businesses are already targeting them – and they’ll compete with you as soon as you pose a threat to performance competition.

As Schuh’s McMillan concludes: “We’re usually always looking for the next win. And there is always a next win to be had!”