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How Black Friday has become retail's grey area

Black Friday has become a fixture on the fashion retail industry’s promotional calendar. But as the discounting activity becomes longer and deeper, and some retailers and consumers shun the event altogether, its future has become blurred.

Black Friday has become a disruptive force ahead of the peak Christmas trading period, as more and more retailers feel pressure to take part for fear of losing market share to competitors that are slashing prices.

This year, the discounts have launched earlier than ever, following hot on the heels of a heavily promotional October – prompting fears about the health of Christmas trading and a growing backlash in some circles against the “rampant consumerism” Black Friday is seen to represent. As a result, Black Friday’s future place in UK fashion remains unclear. 

The US-imported discounting day continues to grow in popularity among retailers here, many of whom embrace the opportunity to clear stock. In 2018 the number of UK retailers participating in Black Friday rose 72% year on year, data from retail Sales aggregator shows. Jigsaw and Whistles were among those to take part after previously shunning the event.

Meanwhile, research commissioned by discount voucher website suggests UK shoppers will spend a record £8.57bn between Black Friday (29 November) and Cyber Monday (2 December) this year, equating to an average of £2.48m each minute of the four-day weekend. This is an increase of 3.4% on last year.

Some retailers, such as Marks & Spencer and Primark, steer clear of specific Black Friday promotions, but elsewhere the market is highly competitive.

This is partly being driven by market conditions. At the beginning of November, Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium noted that retailers “embarked on an extraordinary period of discounting this October as they tried to entice shoppers into making purchases”.

Despite this, the Office for National Statistics reports that retail sales declined by 0.1% month on month for October – causing many retailers to bring their Black Friday Sales forward, in a bid to make up the lost sales.

Week-long window

What was a one-day event is now at least a week-long deal fest.

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Amazon has set the tone this year by promising more than two weeks of discounts, from 18 November to 3 December. To compete, fashion retailers have also kicked things off earlier: Very has launched 40% off selected winter fashion, Debenhams started discounting from 25 November, and lingerie brands including Figleaves and Boux Avenue were already cutting prices last week by up to 70%.

Asos was running a “Black Friday warm-up” Sale of 40% off selected styles this week.

However, early discounters run the risk of sales stagnating as consumers hold out for deeper discounts later in the month, experts tell Drapers.

“Once those promotions kick in, it sets the tone for Christmas, when retailers should be trading prime and not at discount,” warns head of retail research at Knight Frank, Stephen Springham. “You can’t knock 20% off prices one day and then suddenly revert to ‘normal price’ a week later.”

This year, Black Friday’s impact on Christmas sales is exacerbated by when it falls. The annual event’s anchor to Thanksgiving means it can occur as early as 22 November or, as this year, as late as 29 November.

Falling on the final payday before Christmas could have a potentially disastrous drain on spend as consumers are able to splash out on gifts early. A Black Friday report from research consultancy Retail Economics and Klarna found that 28% of shoppers plan to bring forward their Christmas spend. This is an increase from last year’s 23%, and as “buy now, pay later” options such as Klarna become more popular, it is likely this will continue to grow, making obsolete the big rush of income for retailers on the weekend before Christmas.

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“[Buy now, pay later] will encourage people to bring forward purchases in that discount period potentially at the expense of Christmas,” explains Richard Lim, chief executive of research consultancy Retail Economics. “We will see the flattening of the peak of Christmas spending.”

Retailers are therefore having to be increasingly strategic in their discounting to maintain strong Christmas sales.

“You have to look at making [Black Friday] a useful tool in your war chest of retailing,” says Superdry CEO, Julian Dunkerton, although he declines to reveal the retailer’s strategy this year. “Businesses need to protect Christmas. In no way can you sit there and undermine your Christmas trade and still think you can have both.”

For Dunkerton, blanket discounting is “short-term thinking” to “be eradicated” from any retailer’s Black Friday arsenal in the future.

Debenhams managing director of fashion and home Steven Cook agrees: “Where [Black Friday] gets diluted is where [retailers] try to make offers too generalised or the [time] window too broad. Our promotions this year are very focused into key categories with fresh offers on fresh inventory.”

Cook will not reveal the department stores’ strategy, which is indicative of the fiercely competitive approach to participating in Black Friday.

However, he says: “We’re being surgically focused on the time span and length of offer, to speak to the customer about specific extraordinary offers versus just another Sale period.”

Cheap shots

Debenhams’ apparent departure from knee-jerk and blanket discounting is indicative of a more nuanced approach to Black Friday.

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Increasingly, premium brands such as Joseph are avoiding Black Friday labelling, to try to protect brand equity and disassociate themselves with the discount day, while still offering reduced prices.

Stuart McClure, founder of, tells Drapers: “There are still negative connotations associated with Black Friday as a concept. We’ve noticed premium brands are turning their backs on the name Black Friday in marketing and on-site messaging, but still engaging with the concept under a different guise, enabling them to compete, but maintain their brand equity.”

Responsible retail

Another, wider issue is affecting the whole of the fashion industry: sustainability.

A survey of more than 2,000 shoppers published last week by peer-to-peer selling platform Gumtree found that 58% of people plan to ignore Black Friday, potentially reducing overall spend by more than £800m.

“We’re seeing a growing number of brands attuning to burgeoning dissatisfaction with rampant consumerism,” says head of retail at trend intelligence agency Stylus Katie Baron. “Patagonia and [US outdoor clothing retailer] REI were two of the earliest brands to adopt a counter-cultural take on Black Friday, and as consumers prioritise sustainability, brands will have to explore different ways to capitalise on the attention of these shopping events.”

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One British brand maintaining its sustainable ethos in its Black Friday approach is Raeburn. For the second year running, the brand will boycott the discount day by closing its retail and online stores. Instead, customers can bring items from any brand into the business’s creative space in Hackney, east London, for free alterations and repairs.

“There’s more of a groundswell [of change] from individuals and other brands,” says founder and creative director Christopher Raeburn. He says that the social media posts marketing the brand’s boycott of Black Friday last year “were by far the most impactful we’ve ever had on Instagram and LinkedIn, and the traction we’re receiving this year is fantastic”.

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Raeburn expresses “moral concern” at how the discount period encourages over-production and over-consumption, particularly where product is now for the Sale.

As the fashion retail market becomes more competitive each year, the brands could benefit a sustainable approach if it aligns with their ethos. It points to a more curated Black Friday strategy, in which discounts are aligned to a business’s year-round approach. Retailers should avoid reactive and haphazard Sales by focusing on brand identity, keeping return customers engaged and loyal.

Stylus’s Baron predicts: “Over the next 10 years, we’ll see Black Friday move away from a discounting frenzy to a curated shopping experience that explores value in all its guises.”


Readers' comments (1)

  • This year - more than many previous years - Black Friday has the ability to be retail's grey area as the Black Friday concept spreads from at least 22 November to 29 November for many retailers. This is because in doing so it is potentially more difficult for retailers to ensure that promotional advertisements are clear and transparent and that the promotions will not fall foul of consumer protection law. But this may help retailers avoid problems.

    Stephen Sidkin
    Fashion Law Group
    Fox Williams LLP

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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