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Pens, policemen and parades – a short history of Black Friday

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If you think that Black Friday is something from the internet age, then think again: it is all to do with pens, policemen and parades.

Since the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924 the day after Thanksgiving – always the forth Friday in November – has been seen in retail circles as the kick off for the Christmas sales rush. By the 1960s, this booming sales day become known in accounting circles as ‘Black Friday’ because it was when retailer’s accountants switched from their red pens – used to denote losses – to their black pens showing profit.

The name stuck with retailers and the more entrepreneurial among them saw that it could be used as a way to get people to shop more if they drummed it up as a special shopping day. In the US, most people who aren’t retail employees don’t tend to work on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and so it became an ideal way to combine holidays with shopping and many retailers started offering discounts and specials to drive traffic.

Talking of traffic, the Black Friday tag was further reinforced in the late 1960s when traffic police in Philadelphia described streets clogged with cars and pedestrians all trying to get to and from the shops as ‘Black Friday’ and the name stuck.

The here and now

These days, with its round of bargains and special offers shoppers in the US – and increasingly in the UK now too – queue outside stores ready to shop, with the South Park neighbourhood of Charlotte South Carolina being the ‘most traffic-strewn area in the US on Black Friday 2015.

Here in the UK, Black Friday as a retail phenomenon only really took off in 2013 when Asda – a subsidiary of US giant Walmart – publically started to push its Black Friday campaign, with some commentators believing that this blatant Americanism wouldn’t translate well.

It did and by 2014, Argos, John Lewis and were all running Black Friday campaigns in store and online, showing a massive spike in retail traffic for these retailers.

In an echo of 1960s Philadelphia, the chief constable of Greater Manchester also labelled it Black Friday because of the increase in police work caused by brawls, traffic offences and general madness around this putative shopping phenomenon – and again the name stuck.

Going online

But it is the internet where Black Friday has really taken hold and what has propelled it into an international phenomenon. As online retailers saw the rush to shop on this day in the stores, many started to run their own Black Friday special offer days, with Amazon leading the charge.

Online the principle is the same: on that day there are many high value goods going at ridiculously low prices. The lure of these albeit rare offers drives vast volumes of traffic to retail websites and leads to a big spike in sales.

InternetRetailing research team monitors Black Friday and Cyber Monday and in 2015 found that 2015 saw a large uptick in brands trading on the Black Friday bandwagon in the UK, while SimilarWeb [IRDX VSWB] found that Black Friday traffic was 11% down compared to the equivalent day in 2014. But many retailers did really well: House of Fraser [IRDX RHOF] (+26.6%), Debenhams [IRDX RDEB] (+23.7%), New Look [IRDX RNEW] (+15%), Etsy (+15%) and Boots [IRDX RBOO] (+10%).

“The winners for one-day traffic growth on the day were John Lewis [IRDX RJLW] (+71%), PC World [IRDX RPCW] (+65%), Boots (+45%) and House of Fraser (+45%) – compared to visits from the previous day.

Amazon said that Black Friday 2015 was its “busiest ever day, with more than 7.4m items ordered over the course of the day – equivalent to 86 items every second. Its strategies included time-limited ‘lightning deals’, added every 10 minutes, as well as deals of the day that lasted all day, subject to availability”.

Cyber Monday and beyond

And that would be it as the ‘history of Black Friday’ were it not for Cyber Monday. Coined in the US in 2005 by Ellen Davis in a press release announcing a made up sale day for to try and stand out from all the online retailers plugging Black Friday, Cyber Monday – the first Monday after Black Friday – sought to tap into the developing phenomenon that the majority of online retailers saw a boom in sales from this day onwards towards Christmas.

Typically, Cyber Monday followed the same idea as Black Friday but were deals focussed on smaller online only retailers who couldn’t compete with the big boys. However, as the online and real world’s have become evermore closely connected, Black Friday and Cyber Monday became in 2015 the bookends around a weekend of shopping sale madness and were seen as the kick start of Christmas shopping bonanza, where most retailers make the lion’s share of their profits in any given year.

In 2015 Cyber Monday saw a bonanza for retailers of all shapes and sizes, but what was notable was the rise in the use of mobile to shop – and in some ways marked the start of the true mobile-as-mainstream shopping era.

SimilarWeb found that Amazon saw use of its app increase by 125%, followed by Argos (+115%). SimilarWeb also noted that both Amazon and Argos started their sales a week before Black Friday, with Argos achieving a 22% traffic rise in the run up to the sales day and a further one-day increase of 30% on the day itself. Amazon saw a 12% rise in the run up to Black Friday, and a further 30% boost on the day itself, as their strategies appear to have paid off.

Black Five-day

And this leads us nicely to what 2016 will bring. Forget Black Friday and Cyber Monday and start thinking Black Five-day. According to global ecommerce consultancy Salmon, this year we are going to see a whole week run up to Black Friday, starting on 24 November, with UK retailers being part of a £5billion spending marathon.

Many others believe that five days is a conservative estimate and that the run up to Black Friday on 25th November, will start the week before and could well continue for another week thereafter. The offers will be there as will the customers.

But this is all part of a wider change in retail. While Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the Christmas peak are all still vital for retailers, but it marks a move towards marketing specials throughout the year, where specific groups are targeted to create a spread of peaks. It already happens in China with Single’s Day (11 November) and Amazon is trying to create its own peak mid-summer with Amazon Prime Day (15 July).

So learn what you can in the next month or so from our on-going analysis of Black Friday 2016 – you may need the skills again sooner than you think.

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