Black Friday UK: Digital rush but stores stall

House of Fraser Black Friday 2015

House of Fraser

It was all fairly inevitable. In the UK at least. Black Friday migrated more fully online than forecasters predicted. While many physical stores were underwhelmed by demand, websites crashed and customers were left frustrated.

The fact is that in Britain, the fourth Friday in November isn’t a day off. In the US, it’s the day after Thanksgiving that many people take as holiday. Just like Boxing Day used to be, they’re bored after all the festive family fun the day before and are in the mood to jump in the car and shop for bargains.

In the UK, it’s just another Friday, albeit only four weeks before Christmas, and most of us are at work. What that means is that we’re (largely) not queuing outside stores at 5am, but we are nipping online during the morning/evening commute, at lunchtime, during tea breaks and so on.

Additionally, lots of us are still questioning Back Friday’s existence and feel vaguely uncomfortable about it after last year’s scenes of mayhem. On Wednesday evening on the train I overheard a woman on the phone discussing a trip to Bluewater. The conversation went something like: “Yeah I’m off Friday… it’s Black Friday… No, I don’t know why it’s called that either… I’m not going anywhere near Bluewater, it’ll be packed…”

Bluewater Black Friday 2015

Bluewater Black Friday 2015

Black Friday is a very artificial transplant in Britain. Tasteless though the analogy sounds, like a donated organ, it may be a sort-of success, but it needs extra help to make sure it sticks – and stays. That extra help has meant adapting it so it’s no longer the Pure Black Friday of the US model. This year, Black Friday has become Black Week or even Black Fortnight while the day itself has turned into Black E-Friday with an online rush that left physical stores enduring what one newspaper dubbed “bleak Friday”.

Essentially, for the UK, Black Friday is a mini shopping season – it’s as if the January sales season had been picked up and moved to late November/early December. Which is all very well except that’s the time when retailers should be selling goods at full price, not with deep discounts.

So what actually happened on the day?

  • Internet sales passed £1bn on a single day for the first time but it looks like they may have topped that figure by more than predicted.
  • Customers seemed happy to get up early to e-shop and there were reports of heavy site traffic between midnight and 07:00 before people went to work. More than 62% more people browsed online during that seven-hour window.
  • Some central London postcodes saw a big spike in online traffic. Very.co.uk said a quarter of its shoppers came from the London area and between 07:00 and 08:00 it had 40,000 shoppers. Heated hair stylers were big sellers so GHD must be happy.
  • Amazon said the day topped its previous UK record (Black Friday last year) with over 6m items ordered compared to 5.5m in 2014.
  • Crashed or problematic websites at various points during the day included John Lewis, Boots, Tesco, Debenhams and Argos – a friend of mine ended up ordering a replacement for her 20-year-old freezer (whose door had fallen off) by phone. The poor Argos rep on the end of the line also met with a crashed website.
  • There were big queues at some stores but retail tracker Springboard said physical store traffic fell 8.9% year-on-year in retail parks, despite such locations having seen buoyant footfall for much of this year. Traffic fell 6.5% to high streets and 4.6% to shopping centres.
  • Some of those who did visit stores seemed disappointed as retailers this year offered fewer mega-deals in-store but tried to make the atmosphere more festive and less frantic. However, those shoppers had come for big discounts not family fun.
  • I had to visit Bluewater as too many dog hairs finally killed off my 16-year-old vacuum cleaner. Parking was difficult around late lunchtime but the mall itself wasn’t packed. It was busy but not what I’d call buzzing.
  • Most retailers offered some kind of discount, even if that was a very discreet sign in the window say “20% off” or if a sales assistant very discreetly whispered “everything’s 25% off today madam” as I walked in.

Check back next week to see what happened in the US over the Black Friday weekend…

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