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Taking Stock #27: Black Friday: One shot, two stabbed. Welcome to Bricks-and-Mortal Kombat

by Sean Fleming

Once upon a time, not very long ago, Black Friday was really an American-only phenomenon. Like the World Series and pumpkin spice latte. But like so many things, it crept out of its natural habitat and spread. Now it’s everywhere. From Australia in the south to Sweden in the north. Although it’s worth remembering that in the far north of Sweden every Friday between October and March is a black Friday.

The UK, in particular, went nuts for Black Friday a few years ago. So much so, there were people fighting over in-store bargains and several retailers’ delivery networks got choked by a sudden influx of parcels. That was 2014. M&S had trouble. Yodel had trouble. Plenty of people had trouble. But no one was hit harder than City Link, one of the UK’s largest delivery firms which went under on Christmas Eve 2014.

It was a steep learning curve.

But by 2015/16 things were changing. In-store, footfall was down. Online, sales were up. But thanks to earlier – and elongated – sales periods, retailers were spreading the load; the Black Friday/Cyber Monday peak had become a series of smaller, more manageable peaks. “Could this be the future for Black Friday?” I wrote when I was editing eDelivery back then. “A declining relevance in-store and a growing one online. It’s not much of a stretch, but it would make sense for Europe, and the UK market in particular.”

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All the indications are that that’s what happened. And now that trend is taking hold in the US, where last week one person got shot and two were stabbed during what appear to be Black Friday shopping-related altercations. According to the US site Reviews.org, Arkansas, Tennesee and West Virginia the three worst states for Black Friday violence, 57% of which (US-wide) takes place in a Walmart store. Although not all in the same one. Meanwhile, a report from Reuters says Black Friday online sales in the US were up more than 23%, while in-store sales were down by 8.9%.

Solving problems or displacing them?

So, just like I did three years ago, I’m going to predict that we’re witnessing the future for Black Friday (and Cyber Monday) in the US. Faced with a perceived likelihood of being shot, stabbed, or otherwise assaulted many people will choose to fire up their laptop and shop from the safety of their own home. Many retailers and mall owners, fearing litigation, will be worried about lawsuits alleging they should have done more to stem the threat of violence or keep shoppers safe. The net effect will be the continuing rise of online sales and a corresponding decline in physical shopping over the period (I’m getting tired of typing those two words… the one beginning with a B, the other with an F).

Three cheers… the problem has been taken care of. Or has it?

In short, no. It’s merely been displaced, and we’re back to the situation that befell the UK retail sector in late 2014 – too many parcels flooding into the delivery network.

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Scuffles break out in stores when there are too many people. Delays break out when there are too many parcels. While the likes of Yodel in the UK invested eye-poppingly large amounts of money to improve their capability, not everyone has and not everyone can. Delivery is still, in the main, a margin-strapped sector. Without the right investment, the right infrastructure, and the right support it will show itself up as the weakest link in the retail supply chain.

The situation in the US is not the same as it is in the UK. The biggest difference being size. Size and population density. Density is the key to timely, cost-effective delivery. The more stretched your network, the more vulnerable it is. The importance of route-mapping and planning, fuel cost management, and in-flight flexibility all become more important than ever.

Whether my prediction turns out to be right, I certainly hope there are no more stabbings and shootings. One thing is for certain, next year will be interesting.

 

#eCommerce, #retail

    
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