Black Friday: a crucial new event in the UK retail calendar, or another unwelcome American import?

This controversial annual event has certainly divided retailers and consumers alike. In recent years, there's been something of a backlash against Black Friday — on both sides of the Atlantic.

And there's been no repeat of the violent chaos that was mark of Black Friday 2014 in the UK. Last year, the TV cameras turned up to see solitary shoppers, most looking quite bemused at all the attention, waiting patiently at store doors.

So how will Black Friday figure into your shop's Christmas plan this year?

Will it form a key part of your marketing strategy, or is it just another pre-Christmas sales day? Hopefully, this blog post will help you decide...

Is interest in Black Friday on the wane in the UK?

We might not have seen hordes of shoppers at the doors in recent years, but does that mean Black Friday isn't relevant any more?

The data wouldn't suggest so. In fact, the Google Trends graph below, which tracks search queries for "Black Friday" in the UK over the past eight years, shows that interest in the event is on the up.

Although it's too early to see this year's interest, we can see that search interest in Black Friday was at an all time high last year.

At least online, Black Friday is bigger than ever in the UK.

Sales data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the emergence of Black Friday sale events shifted a portion of retail spending from December to November in 2017. In other words, the Christmas shopping season has been extended.

For many retailers, this is very good news, reducing the chaos during December and making stock management a little easier. Of course, you'll still need to ensure you've got your seasonal staff on board nice and early, and plan your rotas accordingly.

Earlier and Earlier

Every year, we all complain about how the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier, with Christmas cards and gifts appearing in shops by September, and big-budget Christmas-themed ads airing from early November.

In the US, Black Friday used to mark the start of the Christmas shopping season, but now many stores open on Thanksgiving itself (celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November), and offer similar discounts.

In the UK, where Thanksgiving isn't traditionally celebrated, there's never really been a traditional start to the Christmas shopping season, so for many of us, Black Friday isn't as significant. Therefore, recent 'Black Friday' sales at big retailers often start a week or two before the date itself. Amazon and AO.com are examples of online retailers that took that approach last year.

Of course, this makes the day itself less of an event — which reduces the buzz both in-store and online.

What about small businesses?

Small businesses obviously don't have the same advertising reach or high street presence as larger businesses, nor the capacity to offer major discounts on large numbers of products.

If you have an online store, you may also lack the infrastructure to manage a sudden influx of traffic and orders. In-store, you must have the staff and stock ready to manage high demand, as well as the payment infrastructure (such as enough card machines) to process payments quickly.

These problems only emerge if your Black Friday marketing efforts succeed. If they don't, all you'll get out of the day is lower revenue.

This might all sound overly negative, but there are plenty of ways you can make Black Friday a success at your small business.

Black Friday tips for SMEs

  1. Rota more staff

Don't sacrifice your usual standard of customer service on Black Friday. For many customers, this'll be one of their first interaction with your brand, so you need to make it count. If you plan to extend your promotions across a couple of weeks, it's probably worth investing in rota planning software so your staff always know when they're next due in.

2. Know your USP/angle and stick to it

Figure out how you'll promote your brand during Black Friday. For example, will you try to tempt thrifty gift-buyers, or customers who want to treat their friends and family to something special?

Your theme should follow your brand's usual values and tone, and also reflect the products you want to sell off.

Don't confuse your messaging — stick to one angle. This'll keep your messages distinct through the noise.

3. Don't try to compete on price

The supermarkets, Amazon, and the other big names will be slashing prices all over the place. Following suit isn't going to end well. Limit the number of loss-leaders and be smarter with your discounts.

Instead, compete on service. Offer customers something extra, like free delivery or half-price next-day delivery. In store, you could offer free gift wrapping or a free item when a customer spends a certain amount.

4. Discount old stock

Limit your biggest discounts to stock that you really need to shift. These products might not draw the eye in the same way as big-ticket items, but at this point, you just want to free up space for new stock. Use the Black Friday sales to clear the shelves of these problem products so you can stock more profitable products in the remainder of the Christmas season.

5. Promote gift cards

Gift cards are an easy win for retailers. Roughly half of customers will spend more than the gift card is worth — at an average overspend of 20%. They don't take up much space in your shop, and they're always a popular gift option. You might not be discounting gift cards this Black Friday, but giving them pride of place at the point of sale (or online) is a smart idea.

6. Email marketing

If you have a high-quality email list (i.e. one filled to the brim with happy customers or keen prospects), now's the time to use it. Using Mailchimp or another email marketing platform, put together some emails to promote your sales.

Remember that every other company will be bombarding their email list with Black Friday emails. You need to do something different. That's easier said than done! There are endless different approaches to take here, but it all starts with a strong subject line.

7. Tease your offers on social media

Social media can be a lucrative source of trade during Black Friday. To be heard above the noise, start teasing sales in advance — and maybe prompt readers to subscribe to your emails to get exclusive discounts.

8. Use social media to host competitions

Give away a top-selling or premium product through a Black Friday social media competition. Each platform has its own rules around promotions (for example, Facebook will shut down any promotions asking users to share the post in order to enter), so make sure you follow them.

Also, if you're running a competition on Instagram or Twitter, make sure you use a hashtag to tie entries together and also help you spread the word.

9. Create a Facebook event

An effective way to build buzz on Black Friday is to host an event. But a lower cost way of achieving a similar buzz is to create a Facebook event for your seasonal offers. Name it 'MyBusiness York Black Friday Event' or similar. State the length of your main promotions and the location of your store, and start promoting!

Your followers will 'attend' the virtual event if they're interested/excited, and their friends will see they're attending. Facebook events are an easy way to get the word out about your in-store Black Friday promotions. You can also add new posts and images to the event page to tease products and offers and keep building buzz!

10. Provide R&R to stressed-out shoppers

A great way to stand out is to turn your shop into a safe haven for shoppers. Offer hot drinks, a relaxing in-store environment, and plenty of comfy seats!

Of course, all that time people spend in your store, and the goodwill you gather will translate into more sales...

11. Do it for charity

If you're not keen on the idea of discounting products during the Christmas shopping season, an alternative approach is to turn Black Friday into a charitable event.

Pledge to donate all or half of your profits on the day to a local charity. Have a collection bucket in store, and link to the charity's website on social media.

The only downside to this approach is that it can come across as rather insincere if your company isn't usually charitable. Make sure you choose a charity that's close your heart, so your messaging comes across as passionate and sincere.

Wrap-Up

Consumers are wising up to misleading Black Friday 'discounts' — and the day itself isn't the event it once was, at least on the high street. But if you know your market and get your messaging right, the opportunities for small businesses are there.

And if Black Friday isn't your thing,  Small Business Saturday might be more up your street.