Anyone who has read my previous posts or articles about Black Friday will know I am not a fan. In the words of Piers Guilar and Alasdair Lennox back in 2016 “Black Friday discounts drive shoppers to open their wallets earlier, not deeper. Given that price reductions also erode brand equity the commercial case for retailers to participate is weak. Everything points to multi-brand online discounters, specifically Amazon.” The data bears this out. According to Adobe Analytics, the sales boost was twice as big for the e-commerce “giants” (65%) than smaller competitors and according to KPMG (Annual Retail Survey 2018) 77% of UK Black Friday purchases were made online, 37% of which went to Amazon (SaleCycle “Black Friday Ultimate Ecommerce Guide”).
Or, as reported in the Financial Times in December 2018: “The result is that customers increasingly expect to be offered discounts, and will take their business elsewhere if they are not”. Not just during Black Friday Week but throughout the holiday shopping season: “Footfall (in December) across the (retail) sector was 4.4 per cent lower than a year ago. Pre-Christmas discounting is damaging for margins and we will see the effect of that into January.”
Hardly surprising then that some retailers are fighting back. REI –the U.S. outdoor clothing chain– is one of the original resistors and will be closing on Black Friday for the fifth year in a row. This fits REI’s brand positioning beautifully and they have evolved from their original “Opt Outside” campaign –simply using Black Friday to get out into nature– to this year’s “Get Out. Clean Up.” –getting out into nature to join organised clean-up events.
Does Black Friday foster an unsustainable behaviour?
As Black Friday has evolved into Black Week (online, it is actually closer to Black Month), there are an increasing number of anti-Black Friday initiatives that are focusing on the problems that such sales events cause for all aspects of sustainability. One example is campaign by several hundred clothing brands (mostly French) to “Make Friday Green Again”. They argue that “discount deals encourage consumers to buy goods they don’t need and that unsustainable behaviour worsens climate change” (as quoted in WARC and the BBC 18-11-2019). I have to say that, given the appalling environmental record of the huge majority of clothing brands, this rings of an effort to protect their margins (see above) more than a road to Damascus moment for the brands concerned.
Leaving my cynicism aside, they do have a point. Black Friday –potentially even worse in its new variant of “Black Week”– is anything but sustainable. It directly affects the environment due to the intense supply chain and retail activity required to pull off an event on such a scale. This is multiplied by the increased rate of retuning unwanted purchases (30% according to Forbes). So more cost for the environment and more cost for the retailer.
Neither is it sustainable at a community level. Purchases are shifted from small businesses and local retailers to retail giants disconnected from local communities. Look at any thriving local community and you will find a thriving local retail sector. (An honourable mention here should also go to movements such as Small Business Saturday and similar initiatives that support local retailers and small business against the onslaught of the retail giants.)
Even assuming that sales events like Black Friday Week generate net incremental consumption (the data is conflicting on this point), they certainly do not contribute to sustainable consumption patterns. To the extent that these events continue to entrench consumption for consumption’s sake they are a significant barrier to the change in attitudes to consumption that is necessary if we are to progress to a more conscious and sustainable society and planet.
Anti – Black Friday initiatives
Giving Tuesday is one of the most interesting of the movements that have arisen as a counterpoint to Black Friday. Launched in the U.S. in 2012, Giving Tuesday is now a global movement with, in their own words, a simple idea: “a day that encourages people to do good”. Taking many forms and involving many initiatives around the world, the movement brings businesses, individuals, NGOS, schools etc. together in order give their time, resources, skills or money to initiatives, charities and non-profits that do good every day and with our support on Tuesday, December 3rd (this year) can do even more. Contribution as opposed to consumption. So here is a thought -a thought for you, for me and for the retailers that do not benefit from or do not feel comfortable with Black Friday.
What would happen if we diverted the time, effort and money we might invest in Black Friday Week to initiatives like Giving Tuesday? What would happen if we exchanged the immediate emotional hit of getting a great deal and the temporary “new owner emotional boost” of that thing we don’t really need for the calmer reward of contribution to others? What would happen if retailers didn’t offer us a 30% or 50% discount but a 30% contribution to a local charity, non-profit or community organisation? The brand Fat Face did this in the UK in 2018 and donated £200,000 of its profits to charity.
This is especially for important for the majority of people and businesses that are not highly committed and heavy contributors to social and environmental initiatives. Research shows us that charities, NGOs and community initiatives suffer from the same light “buyer”-heavy “buyer”, double jeopardy and duplication of purchase laws as commercial brands. Categories and brands rely for a large portion of their sales on a small number of heavy buyers, but to grow they need to increase penetration and reach with the far more numerous infrequent buyers. Charities, NGOs and community initiatives are no different.
The triple bottom-line of “Profit – People – Planet” has become of the core tenets of a sustainable approach to business and the economy. During Black Friday Week, the businesses that take most of the profit are mainly those that don’t need any more of it. The businesses that need it get dragged into an uneven fight and are more likely to lose profit than gain it.
So it is not just about “feeling good”. Logic should tell us that it is far better to invest our time, energy and money during this event into more valuable pursuits. People, Planet, the community surely should qualify.
So, if you don’t really need that thing you were going to hunt during Black Friday Week, there is still time to choose an alternative. Put your wallet back in your bag/pocket. Close that Amazon or Google search. Save that energy for Tuesday, December 3rd. Use the remainder of Black Friday Week to search for events, non-profits or businesses that give you an opportunity to participate. Come Tuesday, with a physical presence or just a click, shift your choice from consumption to contribution. Just for one day. You might be surprised of the impact – for a community, an organisation, an individual or a business that needs your support. And on yourself.