Black Friday is now firmly established in the UK, but some retailers are scaling back their involvement after difficulties last year.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Black Friday 2014 was that somehow it managed to cement the promotion as a new institution of British shopping yet call the whole thing into question at the same time.

On one level Black Friday might seem like a godsend: a guaranteed spike in sales at the same time every year that can be planned and prepped for well in advance.

So why did Primark parent ABF’s boss describe such an event in the UK as pointless?

Why did John Lewis managing director Andy Street advise in January that retailers should “play it down” this year?

And why has Asda, as revealed by Retail Week, decide upon a drastic rethink of the whole idea when the Walmart-owned grocer was one of Black Friday’s UK pioneers?

Rise to prominence

Only a few years ago Black Friday was a vaguely familiar idea from the States. Today in Britain shoppers are falling over each other – or running each other over – to get their hands on deals.

Which explains at least some of the reservations held by retailers now.

Black Friday is now established in the UK

Black Friday

Black Friday is now established in the UK

Last year in certain stores, mayhem ensued when the doors were flung open. Fights broke out and the police were called. It was not the sort of image any retailer wants.

But it is not just face that retailers could be losing on Black Friday. Many have questioned the whole premise from the start.

Analyst Richard Hyman of, one of the industry’s most seasoned observers, says that many retailers “privately wish that they could turn back the clock” and never have imported Black Friday in the first place.

“I’ve always said that it was one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard of”

Richard Hyman,

He says: “I’ve always said that it was one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard of. There’s a finite spend and with such massive discounts you will inevitably be losing margins. It’s clearly disadvantageous from that point of view”.

Behind the headlines about record sales – last year the promotion drove the biggest November sales increase in a decade – there is a phenomenal logistics as well as profitability challenge.

Weighing up the value

The retail supply chain works at well beyond capacity for a few days. Retailers are forced to hire extra staff at distribution centres, and even large companies’ websites have crashed with the phenomenal surge in traffic. That has left retailers with frustrated customers and more negative publicity to deal with, on top of any problems in-store.

Add to that ABF chief executive George Weston’s view that he “does not see the point” in the promotion because “all it seemed to do [in 2014] was bring forward sales, so the week of Black Friday was good and the following week was bad and if you average them together sales were fine.”

“One of the problems is that so many are desperate for sales that retailers might still feel pressure to participate”

Neil Saunders, Conlumino

But Conlumino managing director Neil Saunders says that while other retailers are likely to share the concerns that Asda and others have expressed, whether they will scale back their own promotions is another question.

He says: “In terms of other retailers, they will likely be relieved [at Asda’s change of heart]. However, one of the problems is that so many are desperate for sales that they might still feel pressure to participate.

“Also others are in a different position to Asda. Arguably Asda stands to lose more from creating bedlam in its stores as it deters core food shoppers and that, in turn, harms sales and profits. Others may not have that consideration”.

Stepping back

In reality, retailers may not need to tone things down too drastically this year.

Retail analyst Verdict has released figures suggesting that many customers may have been put off by the chaos of the Black Friday period. Its research revealed that 37% of shoppers plan to participate in the promotion this year compared to 47% in 2014, and 65% of them are hoping to avoid physical stores altogether.

“Retailers have taught shoppers not to buy at full price. Black Friday is just the most extreme example of that”

Richard Hyman,

But retailers know very well that once shoppers have become accustomed to bargains, it’s very hard to take them away. It’s the “new reality of shopping” that Hyman describes as being “like a drug” for both shoppers and retailers.

“Promotions are a permanent feature in UK shopping today,” he says. “Retailers have taught shoppers not to buy at full price. Black Friday is just the most extreme example of that”.

Whether retailers really rue the day Black Friday arrived, or whether it’s simply a matter of adjusting, is not yet clear, especially because the majority of participating retailers will already have bought their Black Friday stock months ago.

Saunders says that the most likely outcome is a levelling off. He says: “It will probably morph into a period of discounting and promotional activity that kicks off the Christmas shopping period”.

So the likelihood industry-wide may well be the same level of sales but in a less traditional pattern, all built upon training shoppers to expect discounts at the time of year when they spend most.

If Asda can dial down Black Friday as successfully as it originally hyped it up, the whole of retail may breathe a sigh of relief.