LONDON — It’s not even a holiday in the United Kingdom, but that minor detail hasn’t stopped British retailers — online and on the high street — from celebrating Black Friday just like their Stateside cousins.
This story first appeared in the December 1, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Britain’s biggest Black Friday yet has unleashed a storm of deep discounting, and while some deals are for shops’ VIP customers only, most are for anyone and everyone.
Retailers and forecasting agencies have marked Nov. 28th as the biggest shopping day of the year, with Mintel predicting 200 million pounds, or $314 million, in sales — or double that of last year.
It certainly got off to a promising start.
On Friday, Oxford Street saw a 19.5 percent uplift in footfall year-on-year between 9:00 am and 12:00 noon. According to the New West End Company, which promotes retail businesses around Oxford, Regent and Bond Streets, “early riser” shoppers fueled a 29 percent uplift in footfall between 9:00 am and 10:00 am on Friday.
The new phenomenon of Black Friday also coincides with the final November payday in the UK, a key purchasing time in the run-up to Christmas.
Jace Tyrrell, deputy chief executive, New West End Company, said the organization was expecting “a record amount of ‘lone ranger’ shoppers coming to Oxford Street on their own,” on Friday with families flocking to shops over the weekend.
“Stores are reporting brisk trade this morning and clearly people are taking advantage of special offers to help in their gift buying,” he said.
Oxford Street was packed with shoppers at lunchtime on Friday: They were lining up outside Gap, which slashed prices by 50 percent; crowding into French Connection, which is promoting a 30 percent discount on coats; and virtually tripping over each other in Selfridges. One Selfridges shopper was overheard saying. “I just need to get some air.”
According to Mintel, Amazon was the first major retailer to launch Black Friday in the U.K. in 2010, but the event only really gained traction last year when Asda, Currys-PC World, John Lewis and Westfield joined the party — with gusto.
“The U.S. phenomenon of Black Friday is becoming a fixed mark on the U.K. Christmas calendar for both shoppers and retailers,” Myf Ryan, Westfield director, said in an interview. Westfield has two major malls in London, one on the west side of town and one on the east.
“Last year, Westfield achieved its biggest shopping days of the year on the Black Friday weekend when footfall numbers at Westfield centers reached close to a quarter of a million shoppers. We are again expecting record numbers this year, with many of the 600 retailers celebrating Black Friday with special offers,” she said.
The Westfield shopping centers – London’s largest – are offering discounts including 50 percent off at Forever 21 and 25 percent off at Adidas.
Separately, Bicester Village, the luxury discount shopping mall located near Oxford, is offering an additional 20 percent off merchandise on Nov. 28, and will extend store hours until midnight on the day.
Fashion clothing retailers in particular are hoping to make up for limp sales during a warm and wet autumn.
“Many fashion retailers will be looking to this weekend as an opportunity to get back on track, following an unseasonably mild start to the autumn/winter season,” said Maureen Hinton, global research director at the retail agency Conlumino.
Indeed, the online retailer Shopbop.com is offering up to 70 percent off across all brands from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1, while the department store chain John Lewis said it plans to match online discounts from other stores as part of its Black Friday strategy.
“Following steady growth over the last few years, Black Friday really emerged in the U.K. in 2013, when we saw the day break our previous records for a single day’s online trade,” said Mark Lewis, online director at John Lewis.
“Now that customers are aware of the date and expecting it, we anticipate that this year’s Black Friday will be bigger still. Black Friday is changing the way our customers plan their Christmas shopping, and we expect this year will see it come of age in the retail calendar,” Lewis said.
Amazon.co.uk got an early start, offering consumers deals on Nov. 24, and plans to post new deals every 10 minutes throughout the week.
U.S. retailers including Macy’s are even offering across-the-pond deals. Macy’s is offering a flat fee of 7 pounds, or $11, for shipping to the U.K. for certain purchases over 65 pounds, or $102, until Dec. 18, and is even extending a 20 percent discount using the promotional code “Gobble.”
The Visa Europe Christmas Spending report has predicted that on Nov. 28th, 518 million pounds, or $815 million, will be spent online using Visa cards, making it the biggest day for e-commerce in U.K. history.
“Following a jump last year, retailers are making a bigger Friday push this time around,” said Kevin Jenkins, managing director UK & Ireland at Visa Europe.
“At the same time, Mega Monday, which used to be the biggest online shopping day, will reach its own new high this year, surpassing 500 million pounds (or $788 million). Altogether, we are looking at a 1.7 billion pounds ($2.68 billion) Cyber Weekend,” he said.
According to the 2014 New West End company Christmas Tracker report, this weekend will be the West End’s busiest of the entire Christmas period with 220 million pounds, or $346 million, spent on gifts.
Tristan Rogers, chief executive officer of Concrete, whose clients include J. Crew, Gap, Kate Spade, Tesco and Marks & Spencer, cautions that brands should not take lightly their decision to participate in Black Friday.
“The issue, of course, is that when a retailer commits to the price slash, they will be losing margin on product, so the gamble is that they make up for margin erosion in quantity and churn, therefore clearing the floors for new products,” he said.
“The first mover theoretically gets the advantage, as they benefit from the pent-up demand for a good discount. However, bolt too early and the pent-up demand is not quite there, and retailers end up discounting for no big turnover advantage,” Rogers said.
He added the U.K. retail sector is so weak at the moment that retailers are looking at these sales rallies as a means of “defibrillating the moribund market into life. While sales are not bad per se, joining the Christmas sales frenzies and following the herd into 2015 is not the answer.”
Indeed, a host of high-end stores – including Liberty, Harrods, and Burberry – are not taking part in the discounting frenzy.
Harvey Nichols, however, is marking down its merchandise and offering 25 percent off fall styles from Nov. 27 to Dec. 1 in-store and online. Selfridges is offering discounts of up 20 percent to its VIP customers over the weekend, and Harrods is doing 10 percent off for its rewards card holders.
Hinton of Conlumino believes that Black Friday should come with a warning label for retailers.
“While U.K. shoppers don’t have the connection to Thanksgiving, the pro-activity of U.K. retailers with their heavy marketing and deep discounts, allied to the rising influence of e-retail, has played well to an enduring sense of austerity,” she said.
“Nonetheless, over two-thirds of U.K. shoppers feel that Christmas discounting is losing its impact, which is hardly surprising given that the last few years have seen retailers engaging in more and more promotional activity throughout the year,” she added.
Hinton said deeper levels of discounting are now required on the products and brands that shoppers actually want. “Over half of consumers are planning to shop around for the lowest price once they’ve picked their Christmas gifts,” she noted.