Black Friday is meaningless, but there is merit in a pre-Christmas discount day

Tomorrow is Black Friday. Don’t know what that is? I’ll tell you. It’s the day after Thanksgiving, typically the first Christmas shopping day in the US and the day when millions of shoppers turn out in force to snap up the thousands of deals on offer in shops.

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What does that have to do with the UK? You might ask. Well until a few years ago not a lot. But slowly and surely the big retailers, led by the likes of Apple and Amazon, are cottoning onto the potential of a day aimed at kickstarting the Christmas buying frenzy.

This year we are being offered money off Kindles, half price coffee machines and discounts on iPads. Analysts expect it to be the busiest 24 hours of the shopping season so far with everyone from John Lewis and Asda to Game and Argos joining in.

This certainly has all the hallmarks of a marketing gimmick. “Black Friday” may not be a term coined by retailers – in fact it originated in Philadelphia in the 1930s, where it was used by the police in reference to the huge throngs of fans that turned out for the annual Army-Navy football game – yet almost everything about the day as it is known now was devised by retail marketers.

Worried that the phrase – which sounds more like a day of mourning that an opportunity to go shopping – would scare shoppers away, retailers reinvented the term to describe the day in the year when they become profitable. They also began offering deep discounts on products to get consumers out of the house and into the stores.

In the UK it is even more of a marketing trick. Black Friday has no cultural relevance here. We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. All the Christmas ads launched weeks ago. We’re already bombarded with discounts and deals aimed at getting us into stores and spending our money all year round.

Yet for retailers there is a lot of sense in taking a Friday almost four weeks before Christmas and offering some big discounts to tempt shoppers. It takes some of the pressure away from the weekends, still the time when most people do their shopping.

The earlier customers start their Christmas shopping, the more they are likely to spend. Plus getting people to spend earlier makes it easier for retailers to plan the festive season and make sure they don’t lose out in the last week if the weather turns against them (as it did with the snow in 2010).

The important thing, however, is to make the event relevant. At the moment its arbitrary and meaningless. UK marketers must come up with their own strategy for driving up sales, not be lazy and piggy-back on an American idea. Only then will it resonate with customers and help drive up sales.

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