Cyber Week is born

With Black Friday 2015 done and dusted, Retail Systems brings you lessons learned and views on what lies ahead

1.) For bricks and mortar retailers, the free publicity that comes with being associated with Black Friday is now outweighed by the potential damage to their reputations. So it was no great surprise when Asda (criticised last year for letting camera crews into its Wembley store, who then filmed customers fighting over discounted TVs) announced its intention to sit this one out, despite being one of the retailers that bought it here from the US.

The chaos that occurred last year, scuffles, overcrowded stores and low stock, was at the front of many minds, sparking as it did a rush of negative news reports. The National Police Chiefs’ Council piled on the pressure when it urged retailers to have the right levels of security in place, whilst suggesting that they look to run their festive sales over a longer period than just a day.

Online review platform Trustpilot, meanwhile, had a look at its data and found that Black Friday spikes a rise in negative reviews, due to the strain the event puts on retailers. James Westlake, UK country head for Trustpilot, says:. “After a day like Black Friday, shoppers often share their experiences online, both good and bad. Last year, we saw a 13 per cent increase in reviews left on Trustpilot, and an 11 per cent increase in negative reviews. As a retailer it can be tempting to focus on the quick wins instead of consistently delivering great customer service. However, significant increases in demand over a short period of time can put pressure on various aspects of doing business, from inventory to delivery right to website maintenance and customer support."

2.) Visa Europe predicted a bumper Black Friday, with Brits spending £1.9 billion. Alas, as was the case last year, many websites couldn't cope. Various e-commerce offerings crashed before 9am on the morning of 27 November. The John Lewis and Argos websites also buckled under the pressure, the latter suffering problems throughout the day, with customers reporting slow loading times, pages timing out, and the following message from the retailer when they attempted to checkout: "Sorry for the delay. Demand for this part of the site is really high. The countdown is on. Once the timer runs out you'll be able to continue your Black Friday shopping. If you prefer open a new tab and browse other pages while you wait."

It's 2015, people, not 1995. Retail websites shouldn't be crashing as people splurge on electrical and white goods!

3.) Black Friday is showing signs of a shift online, with smaller crowds in stores than a year ago. There was no repeat of the unsavoury scenes from last year when police were called to supermarkets around the country as crowds surged and people started acting like mentalists at the first sniff of a bargain. A man was arrested in Salford after he threatened to smash a staff member’s face in. Shoppers in Stretford decided to have a fight and a woman suffered minor injuries after being hit by a falling TV. Yes, it truly was a delightful affair showcasing everything that is great about this country.

On the downside, the hoped for rush didn't materialise, leaving red faced retailers with lots of unsold stock. UK retail footfall this Black Friday was up 0.3 per cent on 2014, according to Ipsos Retail Performance. The marginal rise was largely felt in outlet centres and on retail parks, where traffic rose by 8.3 per cent and 4.3 per cent respectively. “After all the hype and speculation, our data shows that store footfall levels were marginally up on last year, thanks primarily to more stores participating in promotional events,” comments Dr Tim Denison, director of retail intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance. “The uplift was nowhere near as strong as some commentators had forecast, but nonetheless indicates that the discount day was popular and is now a fixture on the shopping calendar. Big questions still remain though over Black Friday’s overall contribution to stimulating sales. Whilst it certainly sets tills ringing on the day, concerns remain that it may be simply pulling demand forward, detracting from the run-up to Christmas.”

PCA Predict found a 270 per cent increase in e-commerce activity thoughout the 24 hour period compared to a normal day. While tumbleweeds blew through High Streets, PCA Predict said there was a 16 per cent increase in consumers going online compared to 2014. Retail intelligence specialist FootFall attributes this to major retailers, such as Amazon and Argos, elongating activity beyond a single day of discounts, and so removing the impulsive ‘buy now’ nature of the day itself. It also suggests a disappointed customer experience from 2014 – from retailers’ websites crashing, to long queues in-store and issues with deliveries – may have put consumers off participating this time around.

Peter Veash, CEO at digital agency The BIO Agency, says: “Major retailers like Jigsaw, Oddbins, Asda and are point-blank refusing to take part, citing various reasons including trying to prevent a shopping frenzy in their stores after last year’s drama. Clearly it’s not just the retailers focusing on their online offering, customers don’t want to face the stress of shopping on the High Street on Black Friday and this will boost online shopping even more. Brands need to recognise that and make sure all their digital assets are ready, and can cope with the increased traffic.”

Zena Lutrin, senior lecturer in marketing at Westminster Business School, comments: “Black Friday (and the more recently invented Cyber Monday) will increasingly become online focused. Retailers will try to avoid overcrowding and chaos on those days in stores by encouraging consumers to make at least some part of their purchase online, even if the customer prefers to collect the goods from the store. Retailers are trying to protect loyalty and margins with price matching promises.”

4.) Building on point three, more retailers should follow the lead of Argos and ditch in-store Black Friday altogether, instead working on creating and nurturing a Cyber Week. This would be in line with the situation Stateside where it is now more about the seven days surrounding Thanksgiving, including Cyber Monday, with increased online activity.

5.) PCA Predict identified a trend in device usage over the day. While the hours of midnight to 7am marked the first time smartphones outranked desktops, there was a shift as people headed into work which saw desktop usage increase, resulting in it being the major device of choice overall (54 per cent). Across the weekend, however, tablets and smartphones made up 55 per cent of online retail traffic compared with 47 per cent last year, according to Peerius. People using tablets had the highest conversion rate, almost doubling that of smartphones. Yet tablet traffic grew the least year-on-year at just a 12 per cent increase. Smartphone traffic, on the other hand, shot up by 86 per cent which suggests that people are still less comfortable about purchasing through such devices.

6.) Black Friday is like Marmite. Is there anything in retail as divisive? Clearly, it has been a hit with many online shoppers, but others have steered well clear of what they see as vapid consumerism running riot. And much of the media coverage and social media chatter in the lead-up was sarcastic and hostile in tone, with the concept of discount sales events taking a battering. It may be into its fifth year, but there is clearly much work to be done regarding its image.

7.) For retailers, Black Friday in its current form is all smoke and mirrors, sucking festive sales from elsewhere and draining November trading margins. Ultimately, marketing bods and PRs pumping out press releases on the subject are the only winners. A recent report by LCP Consulting suggested almost a third of retailers thought it was "unprofitable and unsustainable." If it isn't radically rebooted, it will become a UK flash in the pan.

Alex McCulloch, associate partner at CACI, says: “Black Friday works in America due to the Thanksgiving holiday. But here in the UK people are at work, and this year Black Friday doesn’t even coincide with payday. We don’t think Black Friday will remain a one-day event. Instead, it could gradually merge into a starting signal for the Christmas shopping period. Such a change could also help alleviate the late December ‘standoff’ between retailers and consumers waiting for January sales.”

8.) Black Friday 2015 is finally over, but the fulfilment process is far from done. All those orders must go out correct and on time. Many companies struggled to live up to expectations last year and look once again to be on the backfoot. Twenty two million parcels will be home delivered in the UK over the next week. But 2.2 million of these won’t arrive on time, according to LCP Consulting. It also estimates that £75 million of orders will turn up late because of the delivery company or the retailer, whilst £31 million will also take at least two attempts because of a carded delivery. Next day services are expected to be up 15-20 per cent from last year, which will put additional demands on retailers during their busiest online sales week of the year.

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