Is there a place for luxury retailers in the Black Friday frenzy?

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“Black Friday? I couldn’t imagine anything more ghastly.”

Black Friday, like it or not, has become a fixture on the UK retail calendar in recent years. Much like Halloween, this US import has steamrollered its way onto our high streets and online, vociferously declaring itself as the day consumers should get all their Christmas shopping done. Or, it conspiratorially stage-whispers, to spend on themselves.

So, is there a place in this Black Friday frenzy for luxury brands and retailers? Can you balance brand integrity and exclusivity with such a commercial beast?

There is something deeply, deeply satisfying about acquiring a 100% silk Jason Wu trench coat at 75% off its original retail value. Especially when it’s the only one at a sample sale. It makes you feel somehow like you’ve gamed the system. You win. You gloatingly tell everyone who comments on it of your impressive find. And it’s totally classic, you’ll say, all smug, as you take it to the dry cleaner for the fourteenth time that month because of its incredibly impractical shade of timeless beige.

But would that same level of satisfaction exist had it been one of hundreds on a rack with ‘BLACK FRIDAY 75% OFF” plastered above it?

If you looked up the opposite of ‘luxury shopping’ in the GIF dictionary, is this what would show up?

When we buy into luxury fashion, we like to feel like insiders. In the know. We like to feel individual, like what we’re buying won’t end up appearing en masse on Instagram the next day (remember #thatcoat from Zara)?

The problem with large discounting events is that any shred of exclusivity or originality in those pieces is eroded in direct relation to how many pieces are available and how widely accessible they are.

You could argue that a coveted item in a wardrobe can have more of an emotive tie to the owner if she (or he) had to work bloody hard to find it at a discount price. It means more. It has a story behind it, an achievement.

It appears luxury customers are fully aware of the psychology behind their spending, too. Take Alice, 30. She says she “always checks how many sizes are available in a sale item I’ve got my eye on and if it’s got a full range of sizes left, it instantly loses a bit of value for me as it signals that the item isn’t in demand. If it’s only got a couple, I’m much quicker to add it to my basket.”

The Consumer

Let’s look at this from the luxury consumer’s point of view.

Black Friday comes swanning over. She sees it lurking in the distance, all big and bolshy with its flashing red signage, boasting “60% off!”.

Oh, no, she’ll think. She sidles off in the other direction.  

“I can’t possibly associate myself with that vulgar display of mass consumerism,” she’ll mutter.

And yet… she finds herself strangely transfixed: side-eyeing the emails, the ads, the editorial supplements, the displays of 100% cashmere at 40% off, the fur-lined parka with an electric blue fur-trimmed hood (really?), the newspaper articles listing the best discounts available, the promises of eternal happiness and a wardrobe of dreams once you buy into this merciless stock-clearing exercise.

She wants it, sort of, but she doesn’t really want to be associated with it.

A similar thing happens to brands and marketers around this time of year, too. As much as we don’t want to find ourselves in ‘discounting wars’, or devaluing our brand and stock, there’s a sudden panic that manifests itself in November.

You might find yourself in meetings tentatively discussing alternative options but end up succumbing to the beast that is Black Friday, giving into pressure from various stakeholders that can’t see past the short term benefits of a quick sale.

But is this necessarily a no-go for high-end brands?

There are a few different approaches, here. One is to shun it completely, and make it known that you’re doing so.

Take REI, an outdoor clothing brand.

Bucking the trend, they have chosen not only to close all 151 of their physical stores on Black Friday for the last three years, but also opted not to process any online orders with the #OptOutside campaign. REI chief executive Jerry Stritzke told Fortune that “when you look at retail today, this playbook of promotions and consumerism, is not working – it feels like it’s lost momentum.”

REI encourages its staff and customers to spend time outdoors, instead. There’s a clear link there between REI’s brand image and this move.

The brand has enjoyed strong growth in the last two years, and has reported attracting a younger more socially conscious audience – no doubt in part to the positive buzz the campaign has generated.

Vetements’ distribution strategy has seen the label become one of the most desirable brands of the moment. Their whole ethos relies on the idea that they don’t need to discount, because they limit how much is produced. Otherwise known as supply and demand.

Vetements famously filled Saks’ Fifth Avenue’s windows with unwanted clothes to highlight the problem of mass produced clothing that ends up in landfill (and all for a charitable cause).

“All the people in the industry are ignoring this basic rule of business,” Vetements CEO Guram Gvasalia told Suzy Menkes at the Vogue Festival earlier this year.

“I go to the store at the end of the season and I see clothes on sale; for me it means more clothes are supplied to the store than there was a demand. What we try to do is reduce a little bit of the supply curve… we [even] cut orders if we think stores are too optimistic about selling a certain style, because selling one piece less on the market, you’re sold out, but selling one piece extra, you go on sale.”

Louis Vuitton famously never discount. And Gucci’s recent return to the top with creative director Alessandro Michele’s collections has meant you won’t see any markdowns on his collections.

“The full-price sell-through is super high, so even if I put them on sale now, the impact on sales would be tiny,” Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri told the Business of Fashion.

It all makes perfect sense. But what if you’re not a Gucci or a LVMH? The obvious temptations of the Black Friday weekend can be difficult to resist.

If you’re going to do it, think about offering additional extras, rather than discounts.

Experiences

If you’re a brand with a bricks-and-mortar location, instore events can be a wonderful way to connect on a deeper level with your customers. Avoid a free-for-all discounting frenzy and focus on added extras – a glass of champagne while you shop adds a sense of occasion and exclusivity.

Are you suggesting we get our customers drunk so they spend more? Absolutely not!

Subtle extras

Free delivery is an attractive little bonus – though you may want to ask yourself why you’re not offering this year-round. Evidence* points to this being a big factor in brand loyalty. Why shop somewhere that offers free delivery when you can get it from somewhere that doesn’t?

*Author’s own anecdotal evidence. But seriously. Who actually enjoys paying delivery?

Personalisation

The buzzword of the last couple of years, personalisation is key for the luxury market, especially around the festive season. Instead of discounting, complimentary engraving or monogramming is a little more chic than 20% off.

And personalisation isn’t limited to just products – 64% consumers want personalised offers from retail brands. Use what you  know about your customers to hit them with a more bespoke message. It’s the very least you could do.

By invitation only

OK, so you’re still set on offering some sort of discount. If you’re going to do it, the ‘safest’ way for luxury brands to nod to the event is to treat it as a private party for existing customers, without splashing it all over the website or store windows. A ‘private sale’ sounds distinctly more exclusive than a ‘Black Friday sale’. No big red flashing banner, here.

Brands would do well to limit the amount of stock they promote at a discounted level, to try and recreate the sample sale effect.

If you can find a way to ‘limit access’ to your promotion – whether with a loyalty  programme or simple word choices – it’ll be more appealing, by virtue of it being more exclusive.

The middle ground

But all of this is mere tactics in a seriously crowded market. Yes, Black Friday presents an opportunity to meet sales targets, but at the risk of undermining the integrity of your brand.

While brash sales gimmicks are never going to sit well within luxury, giving the discerning consumer “exclusive extras” or a more personalised experience will engender loyalty and go someway in proving that what you are getting is worth it at full price.

Written by Suzie Ryan, Content Lead at Matter Of Form

For creative campaign or content ideas to unlock the value in Black Friday please contact suzie@matterofform.com

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