How Black Friday ate Boxing Day
Jon Bird of WPP’s VMLY&R explains why commerce trumps culture across the holiday shopping season
In ‘Commonwealth’ countries like the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand there was once a time-honoured retail sales event called the ‘Boxing Day Sale’. Boxing Day started as a British custom on the day after Christmas to ‘box up’ gifts and money for tradespeople or servants.
By the early 20th Century, department stores had co-opted Boxing Day as a sale day – the idea being that margins would be preserved until Christmas, and then goods were cleared at discount prices the day after and beyond into January. That whole premise seems positively Dickensian in an era where globalisation has completely upended the retail calendar.
Today, commerce trumps culture. Black Friday makes no sense outside of the US but has bulldozed its way across the world anyway. Taking place on the day after Thanksgiving in the States, Black Friday started life as the kick-off to the US ‘holiday shopping season’ when retailers would move from being ‘in the red’ (losing money) to ‘the black’ (being profitable). Despite these arcane beginnings, Black Friday is now arguably the planet’s most widely celebrated retail sales event, eclipsing local traditions like Boxing Day.
This is relatively recent. Black Friday crossed into Canada in 2008, edged into the UK in 2010, and Australia and New Zealand around 2013. Now even ‘Le Black Friday’ is a thing in France. As a mark of Black Friday’s worldwide acceptance 13% of global searches for the event now come from Germany and Brazil.
Certainly, Black Friday has been localised a little. In Mexico, a business group invented ‘El Buen Fin’ (The Good End), which runs on the third Monday in November, inspired by Black Friday. In the Middle East, ‘White Friday’ is a more positive spin on the sale, and lasts four days because Friday is a religious day.
And while Black Friday is culturally meaningless in, say, Bolivia, it’s a totally logical inflection point on the retail calendar – and resonates with shoppers and retailers alike. By offering incentives to buy in late November, retailers pull sales forward, rewarding those who are prepared to purchase early, and generating sales momentum into the Christmas period. Last minute shoppers will buy anyway (they are forced to) and are less likely to be put off by a higher price tag.
Like a blot of ink on white paper, Black Friday itself is spreading, creating a kind of Black November, which starts with pre-sales in late October and extends into Cyber Monday – the mega online shopping day on the Monday after Thanksgiving. (Cyber Monday itself has become Cyber Week, so the blurring continues.)
Black Friday is not the only event to break borders. ‘Singles’ Day’ in China began in Nanjing University in the early 90’s, as an ‘anti-Valentine’s Day’ to celebrate being single. (It was selected because it is marked on the 11th of November, and 11.11 resembles bare sticks, or single people). In 2009, ecommerce giant Alibaba turned the day into a 24-hour shopping extravaganza, and today 11.11 is the world’s largest retail event.
Just as Black Friday has relegated Boxing Day to a ‘second tier sale’, Singles’ Day will dwarf Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined globally, and serve 1bn shoppers this year (well over 10% of the earth’s population), with 80m products featured at sale prices. It is now very firmly on the retail calendar in Southeast Asia, and is slowly gaining currency in more Western markets – despite the fact that the origins of Singles’ Day were culturally specific and have been lost in the mists of time.
Halloween, in its modern American incarnation, is also rapidly spreading across the world. Now the second biggest commercial holiday besides Christmas in the US, spending in the UK has more than doubled in the last decade, and in Australia sales grew 14% this year.
Another smaller example of the globalisation of the retail calendar is Amazon Prime Day, which was a US event and now spans 20 markets.
For brands and retailers, the lesson is don’t be bound by the local rhythms of the retail calendar. Go with the global flow…and, more importantly, go with what your customers want. Offering deals in November to ramp up the runway to Christmas makes so much more sense than waiting till Boxing Day.
In the parlance of the US, ‘Happy Holidays’ – no matter which ones you choose to get behind.
22 November 2023
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