Once upon a time, ‘The January Sales’ had a logical purpose for retailers. The Christmas rush was over; so any leftover stock was either taking up space that was needed for new lines; or was highly unlikely to sell at full price. 

Not only that, but customers needed an incentive to shop, given the double whammy of cold, stay-at-home weather, and post-Christmas bank balances. 

There’s no such rationale for slashing prices on Black Friday. 

Its history is pretty simple and entirely focused on the US. With Thanksgiving out of the way, Americans (with their infamous lack of paid holidays) would take advantage of their day off to prepare for the next big holiday: Christmas.

Discounting was introduced for the sole reason of enticing citizens to visit one store over another: buy from us, not our competitors!

By any logic or stretch of the imagination, this is a ‘questionable’ business strategy. People are ready to buy anyway, so discounting does little more than create a race to the bottom – all whilst eroding brand loyalty.

Regardless of how terrible a decision it was – it caught on in the US. And then it spread.

If Black Friday discounting was a bad idea in the US, it was an utterly bonkers strategy to consider anywhere else; where the last Friday of November is/was a perfectly normal working day.

Of all the times that people absolutely, 100% do not need an added incentive to buy? The run up to Christmas.

Despite this lack of logic and common sense, Black Friday has taken hold. And if it’s bad for business? It’s doubly bad for ethical, responsible, small and sustainable brands, that depend on customer loyalty and quality over price. 

Why Black Friday is terrible for small, ethical brands

Any small business will tell you that sales need to be handled with care. By offering discounts, of course you cut into your margins.

Even more problematic for the balance sheet, customers learn to wait. They hold off buying at full price, knowing that a sale won’t be far away. It’s a strategy that’s killed off many businesses in the last few years – even affecting whole sectors, where the actions of one or two retailers have had a cascading effect that’s led to the mass collapse of the small, independent manufacturers the retailers purport to support.

Big brands can absorb the costs of mass discounting. They can buy in bulk, promote loss leaders, and bet that the sheer volume of customers will counteract the lower profit per customer. Any of these are incredibly risky strategies for a small business.

But it’s not just about the accounts – it’s also a reputational issue. 

Citizens are turning away from Black Friday

‘Customers’ are not homogeneous. Some are all in for a Black Friday ‘experience’ – revelling in staying up past midnight to grab the Amazon ‘bargains’ before getting up at the crack of dawn to queue-and-dash when the shops open.

But this is a small – and diminishing – demographic. 

The majority sit somewhere in the middle – quietly grabbing a genuine bargain, but increasingly sceptical about how good the deals really are, and about the ethics and practices of the big brands.

At the other end of the spectrum are the customers who despise Black Friday as a cynical scam that’s damaging the high street – and not offering any better deals than you can get the rest of the year (if you just keep your eyes open).

If you’re a small, local or ethical business then it’s pretty clear which end of the spectrum most of your customers lurch towards.

These are customers who not only don’t buy into Black Friday – they actively dislike it. There’s a growing number of people who not only avoid Black Friday – but whose opinion of you will be lessened if you bombard them with Black Friday emails and deals. 

Taking part in Black Friday can actively harm your reputation among this group of potential customers.

If not Black Friday, then what?

It’s easy to say that we don’t want to take part in Black Friday – but if we don’t take part, what are the alternatives?

Don’t acknowledge it

Simply not acknowledging it is one option – but doing this is likely to lead to a time-consuming host of messages asking whether or not you’re taking part, and it doesn’t really shift the needle. 

Explain to customers why you’re not taking part

For many businesses this is the most simple option. A quick social media post and/or email explaining why you’re not taking part – whether that’s because you don’t feel it’s ethical to promote ‘scarcity’ and ‘Fear Of Missing Out’ sales in a cost of living crisis, or because it’s bad for business or over-consumption – can be a simple way of explaining your position to customers, whilst also raising awareness of the issues.

Offer alternatives – like putting up prices

All Birds made waves in 2020 by putting up all its prices by $1 – and donating the proceeds to Fridays For Future. EYO Active took that to a whole new level in 2021, raising their Black Friday prices by 300%.

Donate to charity

Some brands keep prices the same, whilst making a donation to charity – although if it’s not thought through and carefully communicated, this can lead to accusations of virtue signalling, and look as though it misses the point.

Green Friday

A lot of brands – especially service brands – have tried to relabel Black Friday as ‘Green Friday’. This generally involves attempting to sell more by claiming green credentials like “We’ll plant trees for everything you buy today”. A word to the wise: anything that tries to promote ‘buy more’ and ‘green’ in the same sentence has more than a whiff of greenwashing. Those who chose this route are either very brave, awfully naive, or in need of an ethical marketer.

Close down

Most of us are unlikely to close our site or store entirely for the day – but that’s exactly what REI have been doing since 2015 (whilst giving its staff full pay) as part of its ‘Opt Outside’ campaign.

Pantee hit a middle ground here – they shut down their site to everyone except their existing, engaged customers who have signed up for emails. These customers receive a password so they can access the site if they want to – alongside clear messaging around over-consumption and conscious purchasing.

Promote Small Business Saturday

Instead of discounting, some brands instead highlight small brands that they think their customers might like – the types of businesses that can benefit from Small Business Saturday, the shopper’s antidote to Black Friday.

Promote ‘repair and reuse’ or ‘get outside’

In recent years Patagonia has gone all out on encouraging reuse and repair on Black Friday – a move replicated by small businesses and campaigns worldwide. For businesses not able to offer their own resources, Re-Action’s #CitizenFriday campaign is an easy one to share, with it’s three-way call to action of ‘Share, repair, get out in the fresh air’.

-What’s your favourite way of dealing with Black Friday – ignoring it, subverting it, embracing it?

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