For years I thought Black Friday was a day of martyrdom, of some calamity, or some such. It sounded ominous. On the contrary, Black Friday is perhaps the most welcomed day of the year in the US, both for consumers and retailers. It is the Friday following Thanksgiving Day in the United States (the fourth Thursday of November) and marks the start of the Christmas shopping frenzy that big brands across the US look forward to right through the year.
The tradition dates back to 1952, ever since it has been regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the US, and most major retailers open very early (and more recently as early as mid-night) to offer hi-decibel never-before-never-after blockbuster deals. Black Friday is not an official holiday but cities around the US wear a carnival look on that day.
But why is this day referred to as ‘Black Friday’? So heavy are the sales on this Friday that this day has come to represent the point in the year when retailers begin to turn a profit, thus going from being ‘in the red’ to being ‘in the black’. Interestingly despite the day being branded as such, it never really caught shoppers fancy until about 20 years ago.
Over the last two decades or so, Black Friday has shot into prominence as retailers’ prices plummet for 24 hours in an attempt to get people splashing the cash in the run-up to Christmas. So successful has been the branding of the day that customers often queue for hours, even days, to get their hands on the best bargains. So mammoth is the consumer rush that for some years now Black Friday sales at large retailers begin early, some start on Thanksgiving morning and run through as late as 11 p.m. on Friday evening!
It has spawned its lookalikes in India. The Big Billion sale in India around Diwali, initiated by Flipkart a few years ago, was inspired by Black Friday and perhaps by Cyber Monday (the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend) online sales in the US. Today the Big Billion sale is heavily promoted, matched in equal measure (in fact more) by other e-commerce players, and the day brings in unbelievably large volumes for the entire online industry. There are several such sales days that retailers have devised around festivals and such other events, but these are on a far smaller scale than the Black Friday.
India’s retail sector has been in doldrums for quite a while now. Perhaps a Black Friday initiative across the country, across retail formats, across brands and across product categories could give the retail market a much-awaited kick start. But for such an effort to succeed, it requires a country-wide unified effort in choosing a single day and date, and then promoting it to the hilt, backed with authentic and credible blockbusters on shopping shelves.
Now, should this Indian Black Friday be the first Navratra, the beginning of the auspicious days after inauspicious Shraddhs, the usual trigger to Diwali sales? Or should we be looking for regional triggers before Onam, Pongal, Puja, Baisakhi and other regional New Years? Opinions could vary.
The Maha Bachat sales of Big Bazaar are proof that a well orchestrated effort in the brick-and-mortar format can do exceedingly well. The Maha Bachat sales have seen serpentine queues outside Big Bazaars around the country.
The offers during these 5-day sales have been attractive but not really mind-blowing. With even more mind-blowing offers that would sweep consumers off their feet, the equivalent of an Indian Black Friday could be a reality.
Retailers could look at the way Akshaya Tritiya has been branded, now universally seen as an auspicious day to buy gold it didn’t really exist on the scale that we see it in today, until a few decades back. It was the World Gold Council (WGC) that helped create this phenomenon. WGC pioneered this effort with some leading jewelers in select cities in the late 1990s. So dramatic was the spurt in sales that soon almost every jeweler in India was offering freebies and price-offs on Akshaya Tritiya. And soon enough the third ‘tithi’ of the brighter half in the lunar month Vaishakha, sometimes also referred to as ‘sarva siddhi’ day became a bellwether day for the entire jeweler fraternity! So, an Indian Black Friday is eminently doable with the right stimuli and the right incentives.
For the US economy around 30 per cent of annual retail sales occur between Black Friday and Christmas. For some retailers, such as jewelers, it’s even higher, nearly 40 per cent. Not very dis-similar to our Diwali season. But what makes Black Friday stand out is that nearly 137 million people braved the crowds across America over the four-day weekend last year, 600 per cent more than any other festive day in the year. What is more important is that Black Friday is expected to pull in $682 billion in sales on that day this year, with the average American shopper spending a whopping $967. Black Friday also creates nearly a million temp jobs every year.
An Indian Black Friday could be the best practical execution of this year’s Nobel laureate Richard Thaler’s ‘nudge theory’, a subtle trigger of self-interest for consumers that can metamorphose the economy.
Sandeep Goyal is an advertising professional of 33-years standing. He was Chairman, Dentsu India.