Black Friday learnings for retail ecommerce

So we’ve all made it through this year’s retail avalanche in a seemingly more positive picture than last year. Black Friday 2014, as well as sending sales through the roof, was typified by site crashes, delivery chaos, in-store fight clubs and negative media coverage, some politicians being vocally critical and urging action be taken.

The run up to this year’s event was much calmer, indicating retailers are learning and adapting their approach to manage the spike in footfall and online traffic, as well as setting customer expectations. I’ve seen less negative social sentiment, though it’s still early days to gauge delivery reliability.

However, it didn’t all go smoothly. There were some reported site outages for big retailers, with people posting screenshots of site down messages and PRs rushing to paint a more positive picture (‘It’s not down’. ‘Yes it is’. ‘No it’s not’. ‘I’ve got a message telling me it is’ – ‘Must be your connection’. I know; that’s a cheap shot). This blog gives a balanced summary of what happened for retail ecommerce.

1. Some retailers are turning away from Black Friday

Asda was the highest profile brand that embraced Black Friday last year but this year opted out of launching a specific price event, instead announcing it would spread out a more structured program of savings over the holiday period. Given that Walmart, its parent company, was one of the companies to help import this event from the US, it was a surprising and bold choice.

Other brands boldly announced withdrawal from Black Friday as a counterpoint (surely simply an alternative way to ride the Black Friday wave?). A good example is Rei.com, the outdoor clothing specialist, which set-up an opt-out content led subdomain to encourage people to go outdoors instead of going shopping. At the time of writing, the landing page has updated to indicate that more than 1m people signed up to join them for the opt-out.

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Other retailers decided to embrace the uplift in retail shopping but not pursue the commercial angle, linking up with charitable giving and supporting good causes. A good example is the Fatface #thanksforgiving campaign, where the business advertised it would donate 10% of net profits taken over the weekend to local charities near stores, instead of offering discounts.

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According to Anthony Thompson, CEO:

“Cynical discounting is not a sustainable model for UK retail. It leads to a lack of creativity, newness in fashion and joy”

2. Less site outages = better planning?

There were far fewer reported site crashes/online customer queues.

According to Pingdom data collected by Ampersand, leading brands like John Lewis (34mins) and Argos (1hr) experienced site outages. Although there were less high profile outages compared with last year, data released by Internet Retailing shows page performance challenges for the UK’s top 100 retailers. There were peaks and troughs during the day e.g. lunchtime saw slower load times, over 5 seconds on average. Please refer to the article for an explanation of what was measured.

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There is evidence from both US and UK of site performance issues affecting customers, with some taking to Twitter to publicly chastise:

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Ampersand ran a tracker on the top UK retailers and found much better website performance than last year. According to MD Darryl Adie:

Most retailers seem to have prepared for this year’s event. According to our analysis, 25% of retailers suffered outages compared to over 50% this time last year. It’s not just desktop, mobile traffic has grown significantly this year. With the launch of new and larger devices, consumers are able to shop on their smartphones more comfortably. Brands fully optimised for mobile, such as House of Fraser, John Lewis, Topshop, BHS and Go Outdoors, are likely to have had strong conversion rates.

The evidence of week long deals, rather than 1 day only mega deals, indicates some retailers were balancing infrastructure demands across a longer time period to help protect core services and ensure customers aren’t let down.

Learning for the future is that ecommerce teams need to reduce the reliance upon servers for site performance and look to front-end optimisation to help ensure UX remains high during traffic peaks. Given the rapid scaling offered by cloud-based hosting, there’s no reason retailers can’t plan and increase capacity in advance, then scale back when appropriate.

3. Lower footfall as people turn away from stores

First let me caveat that measuring footfall is an imperfect science. That said, UK retail footfall figures as measured by reputable companies like showed a drop in like-for-like footfall on Friday, whilst online traffic increased.

Lacklustre footfall is surely related to the surge in online traffic. In the US, online sales jumped by 15% to $2.7bn with 180m visits clocked by Adobe Digital Index and mobile shopping, dominated by iOS, pipped desktop (51% vs. 49%).

Screenpages confirmed to #EcomChat via Twitter that across its clients, on average 56% of all session were from new visitors (based on GA data), ranging from 26% to 79%.

4. No such thing as the Monday blues

Some retail sites have experienced stronger online sales on Cyber Monday than Black Friday, reversing last year’s trend.

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This is supported by data from the US, with Monday estimated to be larger than Friday and tipping the $3bn level.

Big Data Labs also reported that online transactions overtook Black Friday between 8-9pm.

5. It’s all about the marketing

Consumers are savvier when hunting the best deals – they’re not just relying on brand push campaigns. Banner ads have been outperforming search for some retailers and it’s estimated that more than 10% of consumers find deals through social media. Interesting, according to the Adobe Digital Index, social media sentiment was more positive on Cyber Monday, the day with the highest out of stock rate for online retail.

That’s not to say search isn’t important. Argos was successfully positioned in UK SERPs as it established ranking all year round for Black Friday relates terms. The screenshot below was shared by Pidatametrics’ Sam Silverwood-Cope on #EcomChat:

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Remarketing is also really important during the sales frenzy; many people abandon buying journeys and baskets, so smart retargeting increases the chances of bringing them back to complete before they’ve snapped up a bargain elsewhere.

6. Is Black Friday a long game?

With higher than usual discounting and evidence (from retailers I work with and other industry sources) that consumer holiday shopping patterns are shifting as people wait for the Black Friday, could the benefits of heavy discounting actually lie further down the road? The British Retail Consortium reported October like for like sales down 0.2% from last year.

Margin is compromised but sales revenue increases. It’s hard to find evidence of short-term profitability from this intense discounting, with some retail leaders warning against over-reliance, but some brands have publicly stated that their involvement is partly based upon acquiring new customers and large amounts of data to fuel CRM activation and retention strategies.

For example, Shop Direct is seeing new customer acquisition as a huge opportunity to create a large cohort of new customers and then tailor the online experience to keep those customers loyal and engaged. Last year it gained nearly 50,000 new customers, almost half of which have shopped again. This is what Alex Baldock, CEO, said:

“Black Friday is not just about the sales on the day. It’s a terrific opportunity for us to profitably gain market share and loyal customers. We strongly believe that that we would be mad not to throw everything we can at it.”

Source: TheDrum

Thoughts and questions

Whether or not Black Friday has been a success depends upon the goals retailers set for the trading period. It may prove to be a profitable exercise but I’ve not seen any convincing data yet, just data showing large jumps in traffic and sales, but to counter that I know several retailers who had tough October/November trading in the lead up. Furthermore, Clear Returns predicts that retailers will be hit with more than £160m worth of returns, so the short-term gain could be masking an underlying cost liability. Delivery and returns is often a cost to the retailer before discounting, so it’s a double whammy with lower margin and returns costs. I recommend reading Playing for Keeps, Clear Returns’ market report on retail returns.

Participation next year should be carefully considered – does the event actually appeal to your customers or do you risk brand damage, or customer fatigue? Whatever the decision, planning needs to start soon to ensure businesses have a coherent strategy with a sensible communication plan to ensure consumers understand what is being offered and why, even if like Rei they are opting out.

What evidence have you seen of the positive or negative impact of Black Friday on retail ecommerce?

CTA black friday recap


  • Sam Silverwood-Cope

    Really good write up James. Thanks very much.

    With the stats i was party to from retailers, CRM Emails and SEO led the way in attribution.

    For one major High St store, PPC only brought in 10% over the weekend.

    However for an online-only store i work with they stated “PPC margins are amazing” so they flooded into that. Both had record breaking days.

    To concur with Dan’s Tweet, Cyber Monday and the following tuesday were also pretty big – with larger traffic numbers, but a lower conversion rate to BF (maybe sanity started kicking in).

  • Natalie Green

    Big Data Labs reported a huge peak between 8-9pm on Cyber Monday perhaps a last minute dash before the sales ended at midnight?

  • Hi Sam thanks for commenting. Interesting that this year most retailers I know said the same with PPC, low level contribution compared to last year and other channels, inc social referrals, rose sharply.
    Also interesting that Monday had lower conversion rate. I saw that on a couple of retailers but also the reverse on one – what I haven’t had chance to do is review their marketing to know if it was down to some epic last minute deals.
    thanks
    james