Black Friday or Black Hole?

It’s that time of year again, when retailers’ thoughts turn to the last Friday in November…

I was going to write that the Black Friday publicity seems like it gets earlier every year, then thought that makes me sound like an old fogey. Then I thought I’d do a quick check, and it looks like it objectively does get earlier every year.  The US-focused site claims to have identified the earliest ever Black Friday advert, while closer to home the likes of Sainsbury’s and John Lewis have already started to drip-feed the excitement.

The extended Black Friday weekend (including so-called ‘Cyber-Monday’) has surpassed the £1billion mark for the past two years. But some retail commentators are worried that Black Friday has become a monster, which threatens to suck the life out of the rest of the retail year.  Like other Black Friday “fan-sites”, features a countdown clock giving visitors a second-by-second countdown to the event.  The fact that a site like exists at all is just one more proof point: Black Friday has become its own micro-industry, regardless of whether or not you work directly in retail.

It’s become such a tradition that many young shoppers just see it as “Bargain Day” and aren’t even aware of where it came from: a very successful American import linked with an event (Thanksgiving) that means little or nothing to us in the UK.



Before the day was inextricably linked with online, I recall an old American friend of mine who used to work in retail telling me that it was originally nicknamed Black Friday because it was a nightmare for retailers – both the volume of people coming instore and the fact that too many staff would invariably call in sick that day.

(Incidentally, there’s no standard agreement on where the name did come from – the most popular theory posits that it was called Black Friday as it was the day of the year when most retail profits turned from red to black.  If they didn’t, you knew you were in trouble…) 

Coming from both sides at once

But I digress.  Good luck to all the retailers planning their bumper bonanza day.  My main thought for this year is around one central fact (courtesy of Doddle):  30% of all Black Friday purchases end up being returned.

There are no doubt multiple reasons for this figure being so high, including that people today knowingly over-order so they can “bring the showroom home” and try on two or three sizes at home, and that people are always more likely to be more spontaneous (or if you like, rash) when faced with a time-limited bargain.  But whatever the ingredients, the brute fact remains.

Black Friday online orders prompt a huge footfall into the store, whether to collect or to return.  And as customer experience instore remains a huge differentiator, it’s critical to get it right.  What does this look like in practice?  Getting instore fulfilment right for Black Friday orders relies on two things: inventory visibility and connected IT systems.



To deliver true omnichannel, the customer experience must be seamless, which means that both the systems and the thinking behind them needs to be joined-upA customer query about their Black Friday order might come in from any channel, not necessarily online.  Retail systems must be able to tell staff with complete accuracy where each and every item is – whether in stores, warehouses, distribution centres, or in transit. This visibility needs to be at the individual item level, not the pallet or the batch delivery level.  Staff instore need to be able to answer customer queries accurately, in real-time.  IT systems need to be connected, and the wireless network needs to be both secure and reliable.

Click & Collect remains something of a headache for most retailers due to the added cost of offering an efficient service: I was reminded of this reading Zebra Technology’s eBook ‘The Journey to Efficiency: Three Steps to Profitable Click & Collect’.  Click & Collect adds complexity (compared to home delivery), not least because staff have to take responsibility for added steps in the process including picking from stock, labelling and putting away, verifying customer identity and locating the order when the customer arrives instore.

Taking a step back to assess your strategy can pay great dividends.  John Lewis increased its Click & Collect capacity by 30% with a joint Zebra Technologies and M-Netics solution which saw its workforce armed with rugged mobile devices (to withstand day-to-day use on the shop floor), mobile scanners, handheld barcode printers and reliable instore wi-fi.

Eyes on the prize

The message is clear: if you want to maximise Black Friday you need to offer choice and you need to keep up with your peers.  If you’re not already in the running, it may prove too late to make up the difference in the next week…  But there’s always next year: Black Friday is here to stay.