Circle Insights

What counts towards success on Black Friday 2021?

Chris Lidington

Will an upswing in the collective consumer conscience suppress spending? Is the force still strong with bargain hunters? We share what we’ve learned this year about your customers’ attitudes and behaviours towards physical and digital retail.

All of our inboxes are overflowing with urgent pleas from retailers to enter the seasonal frenzy of late November purchasing. But consumer champion Which? is warning shoppers to be wary of Black Friday bargains promoted by retailers online and on the high street.

How seriously should we take reported public cynicism about Black Friday? Many retailers and brands are pinning their hopes for a strong year end on UK consumers going big on November deals this year as they plan for an ultra-happy Christmas. As the Sainsbury’s ad says, “It’s been a long time coming, so let’s savour every moment of it.”

But trends for sustainability and localism could make a dent in post-Covid consumer exuberance, along with continued supply chain disruption. Impacts relating to social inequality and digital inclusion are also disquieting citizens and activists around the world.

Will oppositional social media coverage and prickling consumer consciences exert enough pressure to reverse Black Friday’s now traditional spending surge? We take a look at key trends and evidence that will influence 2021’s Black Friday outcomes for retailers and brands.

Do consumers trust the promise of Black Friday bargains?

Brands and retailers are understandably eager to cash in on consumers’ desire to get the most for their money in the run-up to Christmas. But according to Which? research released last week, up to 76% of people who bagged a Black Friday bargain in various categories in 2020 “later regretted these purchases.” Which? retail editor Ele Clark blames “the hype around the sales” for fuelling impulse buying. She raises concerns about the level of debt that some shoppers incur to fund their purchases, from home appliances and DIY kit to homeware and health and beauty.

Which? calls out retail giants including Amazon, John Lewis and for offering Black Friday prices last year that were higher than at other times before and after Black Friday.

98.5% of over 200 items scrutinised were cheaper or the same price in the six months after Black Friday 2020. The same applied to 92% in the six months before. That information could drive more suspicious shopping behaviour, with consumers taking their time to research deals carefully before hitting ‘buy’.

Sustainability is becoming a mainstream matter

The ethics of short-term promotions and pressure on consumers to make a fast decision aren’t the only controversial aspects of Black Friday.

A Leeds University research report in 2019 calculated that up to 80 per cent of Black Friday purchases and their plastic packaging would quickly end up in landfill, incineration or low-quality recycling. The comparison site estimated that UK Black Friday deliveries in 2020 created 429,000 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. This year’s online bonanza is expected to generate fewer home delivery emissions, as we’re not in a lockdown situation, but the 386,000 tonne estimate is still weighty.

In the aftermath of the COP26 summit, environmental concerns are becoming mainstream for more consumers. We hear that searches for “sustainable gifts” are up and more customers intend to shop mindfully. This could mean that shoppers will buy fewer gifts, purchase more locally or favour home-made or experience-based gifts that don’t generate carbon emissions through mass production or delivery.

Shorecap retail analyst Clive Black predicts that sustainability will become more and more important to shoppers, with a direct effect on Black Friday sales in coming years.

The retail backlash: taking the moral high ground

The Make Friday Green Again collective of fashion retailers is taking a stand against what it regards as unhealthy patterns of consumer consumption. Brands that don’t want to take part in Black Friday 2021 are sharing Make Friday Green Again’s messages through a communications pack that hopes to encourage consumers to purchase more sustainably and boycott Black Friday events altogether.

Beyond the fashion sector, up to 85% of independent retailers in the UK are boycotting Black Friday with some going as far as closing down their websites for the day. Others will donate profits to charity or plant trees to help the environment. It’s partly a response to the wasteful over-consumption that Black Friday is perceived to encourage, and partly as a protest against the dominance of online retailers like Amazon.

This trend is not just for small independent retailers. Marks & Spencer and Next are two flagship UK retailers who don’t take part. IKEA too is taking a deliberately different approach, offering 20% extra on their buyback scheme for pre-loved furniture. These actions should appeal to sustainability-minded consumers and could support perceptions of social and environmental responsibility for the brand.

The reality of consumer choices and affordability

Not all your customers will think and act the same way. There are conflicting trends in socially and environmentally conscious behaviours and choices. PWC found that Londoners had the largest appetite in the UK for Black Friday deals in 2019, with more than two thirds planning to spend online. They also typically spend the most. This probably reflects higher average incomes in London. PWC’s latest Consumer Insights report also found that males typically spend more than females, and are more likely to treat themselves on Black Friday 2021 rather than looking for Christmas gifts.

Successful Black Friday retailers will develop a range of targeted messages to match different consumer preferences and intentions.

Age matters too, according to a 2021 Statista report: older ‘Generation X’ and ‘baby boomers’ expect to spend the most in Black Friday (and Cyber Monday) events, while younger ‘Gen Z’ consumers are more likely to be concerned about sustainability. Opinium/IPA found that more than half of young adults intend to buy locally, upcycle or refurbish for Christmas 2021. That’s despite their strong desire for major celebrations to make up for 2020’s damp squib of a Covid Christmas.

The stance taken by Which? implies that Black Friday hype can still be persuasive enough to lure unwary shoppers into debt – it’s a bad look for retailers to appear to be targeting consumers who may struggle to repay loans or credit card bills, particularly if the implied savings are not what they seem. That points to a need for nuanced, segmented customer messaging, for a socially responsible impact.

Last-minute disappointment from scarcities and shortages

The shortage of delivery and HGV drivers and shipping delays in the global supply chain have influenced some people to start shopping earlier, reflecting their fears that availability of some consumer goods will be limited.

GlobalData reports that over 40% of consumers believe this will be an issue. This could add to the feverish pressure of limited-time Black Friday promotions and ads, giving customers the sense that it’s their last chance to get their hands on desirable Christmas gifts. Online retailers with a reputation for being trustworthy and transparent about stock and delivery times will have a greater consumer pull.

Glitches and hitches switch customers off Black Friday online

Another issue for consumer confidence is the digital experience. Research this autumn by Emarsys reveals the extent of users’ exasperation with flaky online shopping apps and websites.

46% said they would stop shopping with a retailer online altogether if their app crashes on Black Friday.

Our experience working with digital retailers bears this out: it’s high-risk to add in new functionality and offers at the last minute unless you’ve thoroughly tested them and have a robust ecommerce platform and data to build on.

Concerns about the robustness and capacity of retailer websites could drive consumers back onto the high street, where they may feel more confident about the face-to-face shopping experience. Nonetheless, John Lewis must be confident in its digital experience, expecting 70% of its Black Friday sales via online channels and just 30% in-store.

What we’ve learned… so far

Debate rages about which of the competing trends will be most influential and we look forward to seeing the commercial results for leading brands, revealing the success or otherwise of their 2021 Black Friday approach.

Our verdict for now:

  • Black Friday 2021 will still engage many consumers. More and more brands will consider the sustainability implications of promotions and will do what they can to reassure customers that they’re controlling waste and carbon emissions
  • Canny consumers will do their research before succumbing to email hyperbole and Black Friday countdowns
  • Retailers who offer genuine value and a consistent digital and in-store customer experience will do best from the event, not just on the day but in building lasting loyalty
  • Organisations who can track and review customer behaviour after the event will have valuable learnings to draw on for future promotional events and Black Fridays to come.

If you’d like to share your views on Black Friday or to talk to us about how data and tech can help your organisation deliver effective promotions and sustainable customer experiences, please get in touch.

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Chris Lidington