Retailers have the Philadelphia Police Department to thank for Black Friday. It was the American police who, during the 1950s and 1960s, gave the name to the day after Thanksgiving because of the chaos that ensued in the city as shoppers flocked to the high street sales while spectators travelled to the annual Army vs Navy American football match.
Shops in Philadelphia pushed for the day to be known by the more flattering “Big Friday”. For them, the day after Thanksgiving was vital – it was the day that shoppers started their Christmas shopping and they wanted as many people as possible through their doors.
Indeed, the day was so crucial that retailers pushed the president to move Thanksgiving to earlier in November so there was more time for Christmas shopping.
The holiday used to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, but in 1939 this was the last day of the month. After lobbying from retailers, President Roosevelt moved the day forward by a week and two years later it was confirmed that Thanksgiving would in future always be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, rather than the last.
As the years went by, Philadelphia’s nickname for the day began to catch on around the US. Black Friday gained other meanings too, with industry experts claiming it also referred to the fact it was the first day of the year that retailers finally moved from being in the red to generating a profit.
But the online shopping revolution and the rise of multinational retailers eventually brought Black Friday across the Atlantic.
Four years ago, Amazon started offering Black Friday discounts in Britain. Year by year, its promotions became more widespread and other retailers joined in.
Black Friday hit critical mass in Britain last year when Asda, which is owned by America’s biggest retailer Walmart, ran flash promotions within stores. There were chaotic scenes as consumers rushed to pick up tablet computers for £49, 32-inch LED televisions for £99, and a Black & Decker drill for £39, all of which were sold on a first-come first-served basis.
However, this year, the day is expected to be even busier. Black Friday 2014, scheduled for November 28, should be the biggest online shopping day ever in the UK.
Christopher North, managing director of Amazon.co.uk, said: “Black Friday took an incredible leap forward in 2013 with so many more customers taking advantage of the great deals on that day, resulting in sales of over 4m items for the very first time in our history.
“This year, we are offering more deals and savings than ever before and we are expecting record numbers to benefit from Black Friday Deals Week.”
Amazon will offer more than 3,000 deals during the week running up to Black Friday, 10 times the amount it offered in 2010. In 2013 it laid on discounts on the PlayStation 3, signed albums, Canon cameras, DVDs, and toys. This helped Amazon’s sales volumes on Black Friday to grow 160pc compared to its first effort in 2010.
The company is keeping this year’s offers close to its chest, as are most retailers. However, Amazon has confirmed it will start offering deals on Monday November 24 and new flash promotions will launch every 10 minutes, meaning shoppers will be encouraged to keep checking the website.
That Monday is expected to spark an online shopping spree that will last until Christmas. Last year, Amazon booked 4m orders on Black Friday. However, this was then beaten by the 4.1m orders on the following Monday, December 2, which has been dubbed “Cyber Monday” because it is the day millions of Brits order their Christmas presents online.
Analysts expect this year’s Black Friday to set new records for online sales, particularly because it falls on payday. However, they are split about whether these records will then be beaten by Cyber Monday and “Manic Monday”, the second Monday of December, which has become increasingly popular with consumers as they leave their Christmas shopping later.
Data from Experian show traffic to retail websites grew by 120pc on Manic Monday last year. However, Adobe data forecast that Monday December 1 – this year’s Cyber Monday – will be the busiest shopping day, with consumers spending £281m, the equivalent of £4.39 per person.
Whenever the peak is, British retailers are approaching a pivotal period. The Christmas season, including Black Friday, accounts for more than a fifth of annual sales for the industry.
Evidence suggests that Black Friday is accelerating the online shopping revolution and changes in shopping habits.
Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis, has said Black Friday will be “huge” this year. Street claimed Black Friday has brought some Christmas spending forward and also highlights how many people are now using their smartphones and tablets to shop. On Black Friday last year, traffic to JohnLewis.com peaked between 7am and 8am at levels 14 times higher than anything the department store retailer had seen before.
The retailer plans to open its stores at 8am on Black Friday and will be offering around 100 deals, mainly on electricals.
Mark Lewis, online director at John Lewis, said: “Black Friday has definitely become one of the key dates in the UK’s shopping calendar.
“Following steady growth over the last few years, Black Friday really emerged in the UK in 2013, when we saw the day break our previous records for a single day’s online trade.
“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.”
Asda became the first major retailer to offer in-store only discounts on Black Friday last year. It said the reaction to the promotion was “phenomenal” and this was demonstrated in the extraordinary sales figures. It sold a month’s worth of television in 45 minutes, 16,000 tablets in an hour, and 60pc of its entire Black Friday stock was cleared out in two hours.
Queues started forming at 5am outside Asda and a man in Bristol was arrested after taking issue with the company’s restriction of just one television purchase per customer.
The company said in a statement: “Customers told us they loved the amazing deals on offer, so we’re pleased to confirm that this year, we are again bringing Black Friday to the UK.
“We will see even bigger and better deals, so watch this space for further information on the great bargains on offer in-stores across the UK from November 28.”
The success of Asda’s Black Friday promotions has encouraged other retailers to join in this year. J Sainsbury, for example, will offer Black Friday deals for the first time.
James Brown, Sainsbury’s non-food director, said: “This is the first time we have done it. We can’t tell you exactly what we will be putting into it, we want to keep that up our sleeves.
“But we have seen what they do in the States. It is predominantly an electrical event, although last year it started eking into homewear.
“As part of the lessons learnt from the last autumn and winter season, we talked about how our customers are increasingly aware of the Black Friday event. We have been working on it for the past eight months. It is an event that has grown.”
Sainsbury’s will offer deals on Black Friday and the following weekend. The products will be on offer in 481 stores across the UK and the supermarket retailer will run a major advertising campaign to promote the deals.
Although the company has not confirmed what the deals will be, they will be focused on electricals and 30pc of the stock will be new to Sainsbury’s for Black Friday.
A number of other major retailers are likely to offer in-store discounts this year. However, some are still considering their plans and declined to confirm their strategy, including Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Argos.
Stephen Vowles, marketing director at Argos, said: “Based on customer feedback and the volume of online activity for Black Friday in 2013, we know this event is going to present an even bigger sales opportunity for retailers this year.
“We’re expecting increased activity in the market as businesses respond to this and naturally, we have plans in place to offer our customers some compelling deals and great value for money at this time.”
Sebastian James, chief executive of Dixons Carphone, which owns Currys and PC World, said the Black Friday weekend was now the busiest sales period for the company after Boxing Day. The company will be offering discounts in stores and online.
James said: “We think it’s going to be a real whopper, becoming our second largest sales weekend of the year.
“We have some truly fantastic deals lined up across a wide range of products, ready to whet the appetite of busy customers as they look to prepare for Christmas.”
Given the lack of history surrounding Black Friday in the UK, it is perhaps surprising that retailers are committing to the event with such enthusiasm.
In the US, the price cuts serve a purpose – they get Americans back into stores after Thanksgiving and officially launch the Christmas shopping season.
But there are no similar pressures in the UK. So, while the promotions are great for consumers, retailers are arguably giving away Christmas sales and risk fostering a culture among shoppers that they will only buy products in the run-up to the festive season if they are discounted.
However, Brown at Sainsbury’s says it helps retailers to start the festive period strongly. “It is quite a nice way of starting off the peak month,” he said.
Black Friday does not yet have the history in the UK that it does in the US – there has been no lobbying of the Government to move public holidays or disillusioned police forces complaining of their increased workload.
But if the trend continues, the chaotic scenes we have seen in the US on Black Friday will become commonplace on Britain’s high streets and in our supermarkets.