Black Friday has been regarded as the most important day of the Christmas Shopping season in the US since the mid 20th century. Whilst it is not an official holiday on the other side of the pond, it falls on the day after Thanksgiving, which is often taken off by US employees to create a 4 day festive weekend.
Here in the UK, Black Friday reached our shores fairly recently, first cropping up as a distinct entity in 2013, when Walmart-owned ASDA announced that it would be bringing "Black Friday" deals in-store.
Over the next few years many retailers adopted Black Friday style deals both online and offline to help further boost pre-Christmas sales. This stimulus was especially important for the high street here in the UK, as brick-and-mortar stores were increasingly underperforming due to the rise of online sales.
In-store discounts proved extremely popular, with several large retailers having to call in the police to deal with the volume and ferocity of the bargain hunters, many of whom had queued for hours to gain access to exclusive deals.
Online the picture has also been rosy for retailers. According to the BBC last year from Monday 21 November to Monday 28 November, online sales rose to an estimated £6.5bn, with £1.23bn spent on the "official" Black Friday day. Many retailers are hopeful that this year sees a repeat of this staggering level of spending, especially as the Brexit pinch starts to restrict household spending.
A retail phenomenon in a holiday's clothing
Fundamentally Black Friday is a marketing ploy, designed solely to push consumers to spend more in the run up to Christmas. Retailers have gone to great lengths in order to present the day as part of the festive calendar and therefore as an event which is elevated culturally to the status of a tradition.
In my mind, many of the discounts are applied only to stock the retailers know will be reduced anyway come January (I also suspect many of them design their original prices around this fact and subsequently intentionally inflate the pre-sale price.)
I must admit that I do resent the fact that Black Friday has become such a phenomenon here in the UK, not because it is American, but because it represents the increasing importance we as a society place upon consumption and ownership of material goods.
Whilst I wholeheartedly admit that I'm a bargain lover, I do baulk at the idea of buying something simply because it is cheap(er). I have no appetite to fill my life with things that I do not need, nor wanted until they were presented as a bargain basement deal.
Manipulation by online retailers
I just want to take a second to deconstruct the online presentation of Black Friday deals, because I find it both problematic and interesting from a professional point of view.
Many of the deals are presented on a carousel or on an aggregated page with other items that are also discounted.
This type of display causes people to search through page upon page of deals, rather than searching for a distinct item. Forcing the user to browse in this way is an excellent move by the retailer, as it puts the user in front of items they would not normally consider and also forces them to adopt a browsing mindset. In this state, the user is much more likely to add supplementary items to their basket and therefore spend more than they originally intended.
Another trick which is becoming more common is the introduction of limited availability (by stock or time) deals. Amazon uses this technique throughout the year on its "deal of the day" which shows a live timer counting down. This is designed precisely to install a sense of urgency motivated by the fear of losing out on a deal.
What is the cost?
With household spending under pressure due to inflation and stagnant wage growth, I understand why many feel that Black Friday deals are a welcome addition to the pre-Christmas retail landscape.
Also let's face it, buying new and interesting things makes us feel good. Briefly.
Our brains also evolved to be rewarded by novelty, a tendency exploited by product designers and advertisers. This preference was preserved in our genetic heritage because it gave us a survival advantage; without it, we wouldn’t have explored new things or been able to invent novel solutions to the problems posed by constantly changing circumstances.
The problem with feeding our desire for novelty is that we are also fuelling the forces which are fundamentally destroying the planet.
Every item you buy, no matter the season, has been produced through processes which contribute to greenhouse emissions and environmental destruction.
By putting profits over people and planet - pushing consumers to spend more on goods - retailers are explicitly disregarding the numerous warnings that our current levels of material and energy consumption are not sustainable.