Sales, clearances, bargains, deals and offers – not unfamiliar events in the UK retail industry

With Black Friday on the horizon, retailers need to understand how events such as this are changing consumer behaviour not only in their stores but across online channels too. As the digitally interconnected world is getting smaller, retailers need to face the challenges this brings.

The US phenomenon known as Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving.  Although originating in the US it has now migrated across the seas to Europe. Adopted here in the UK as a ‘cash in’, Black Friday also has a darker side.

Along with this phenomenon, came behaviour described in news as ‘crazed’, behaviour caused by a desire to be the first to obtain a bargain!  Undoubtedly this brings promotional opportunities for retailers to achieve publicity for their products and services, but, as experience has shown, this can bring unwanted reputational damage when this ‘crazed’ behaviour is not planned for or managed effectively.

Last year was perhaps the most telling experience upon which to base concerns for the future. Although in the US a number of fatal crushes occurred (7 dead and 98 injured – fortunately there have been no fatalities in the UK. However, near misses and a number of injuries have been reported with questions remaining about the number being unreported.  In 2014, we saw a significant rise in incidents that attracted much interest from the media and the police.  Here are just a few of the incidents associated with last year’s Black Friday:

• In Middleton, 200 shoppers refused to leave, despite being told that all the stock had been sold.
• In Stretford, one woman was injured when she was struck by a falling TV.
• In Salford, one male was arrested after threatening to ‘smash a member of staff’s face in’. One woman also broke her wrist in a crush.
• In Wigan, police officers were called to several hundred people trying to enter a store.
• Fighting broke out at a store in Hattersley, resulting in one man being arrested.
• At a store in Green End, a male was arrested when fighting broke out.
• In Bicester shopping village, a full closure was temporarily instigated when the area was completely gridlocked by ‘Black Friday’ shoppers.
• In London, police were called to deal with queues in Edmonton, where they were required to deal with ingress and egress problems.
• A police sergeant was minded to tweet “Even on Black Friday, shoving people to the floor so you can get £20 off a coffee machine is an assault.”
• South Wales Police were called to a number of supermarkets to deal with disorder and customer misconduct.
• In Wembley a woman was pushed to the floor during scuffles.

The most publicised UK incident directly related to the ‘craze’ (but not specifically Black Friday) can be observed in examples from 2005, when IKEA planned to launch the opening of new flagship store, with the expectations of around 2,000 bargain-hunters.  However, the Swedish furniture giant had not predicted that:

‘…up to 6,000 people would descend upon the new store, in Edmonton (London), with a ‘stampede’ to get in resulting in a frightening crush. Thousands had been lured by bargains – some of which were only available until 3am even though a 24-hour opening was planned – such as 500 leather sofas for only £45. Cars were abandoned on the roadside as shoppers attempted to reach the store in time to secure the best offers’.
(The Guardian: Thursday 10 February 2005).
This example fortunately occurred without fatality or serious injury – a lucky escape.

However, in a lesser-known example, only five months earlier in western Saudi Arabia in similar circumstances during the opening of an IKEA store, at least three people died as a result of crowd crushing. The incident occurred after shoppers rushed into a branch of IKEA to claim a limited number of credit vouchers being offered to the public.

With emerging patterns like these, responsible retailers should learn from the past and take appropriate action to prevent similar occurrences, consider their advertising and mitigate possible law suits from families of victims and casualties. Although these incidents did not occur during Black Friday events, they are the first indication of a ‘craze’ trend that could affect retailers and shoppers in the UK.

There is, fortunately, a lot of practical research that can help us understand human behaviour. Social psychologists such as Drury, Reicher, and Cocking argue that generally crowds can be recognised as individuals with a common social identity, who share the desire of achieving the same goal, same purpose and belonging to the same group.  This can be observed at sporting events, such as football games where the socio-psychological identity of fans is to follow the same club. However, crowds not only construct identifiable interrelations during entertainment or events, but also under emergency circumstances such as natural disasters, fires or terrorist attacks.

It has been proved in many research studies that crowds are collectively resilient; in other words people do not develop ‘panic’ but actually assist each other, especially assisting those in need of help or the more vulnerable members of the same socio-psychological collective – for example during Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013.

However, collective resilience is not widely observed in ‘Black Friday’ crowds. We know this from observing this growing phenomenon in the UK over the past few years. The main psychological drive for shoppers is to ‘land a bargain’ and obtain goods at much reduced prices.   Individuals in a crowd share a common purpose – to obtain goods at discounted prices, but the fundamental difference is that ‘Black Friday’ crowds lack a shared sense of psychological unity i.e., collectiveness. In fact, their primary motivation is competitive and this competitiveness can reach extremes of physical aggression and violence. Shoppers are driven to ‘get there first’, ‘not to miss a sale’ or ‘land a bargain’. However, this does not detract from the fact that Black Friday-type events continue to grow in popularity and managers in retail environments need to be aware of the kind of specialist planning required to maintain safety. This is especially important in light of Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) section 2 (general duties of employers to their employees) and 3 (general duties of employers and self-employed to persons other than their employees).

So the real question remains to be answered by those responsible retailers; how can you maximise the opportunity that Black Friday brings, whilst mitigating the risk to those who visit your premises?

At the Emergency Planning College (EPC) the Event and Public Safety Faculty recommend incorporating planning with tools that help you to recognise, understand and plan for potential issues involving crowds.

By using the Analysis, Prediction, Response Model (APR), organisers and retailers can plan for safety more effectively in anticipation of Black Friday.  They will be able to foresee and understand shoppers’ behaviour when visiting premises. As part of the APR Model, the person carrying out this analysis will map and identify the crowd’s expectations, patterns in behaviour and the likely demographics of visitors. The Model is about ensuring that no harm comes to the public or staff. All retail premises are unique but are also affected by similar (if not the same) issues when it comes to Black Friday.  In summary, the model helps you to:

Analyse the likely crowd profile, premises, variables and the actual event you are organising – a ‘sale’ in this case;
Predict each phase of the event (i.e. sale) and its possible development and how this will affect shopper behaviour;
Identify options for how to respond to safety challenges – not only for your own employees but also customers who are visiting your premises.

By following this model you will significantly improve the chances of having profitable, but safe and orderly events.  In other words, you will benefit from the positive aspects of Black Friday without putting the public and employees at unnecessary risk thereby jeopardising the security, safety and reputation of your store.

Author: Lukasz Nalewaj BA (Hons), FdA CSM, Deputy Director of Event and Public Safety

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