A sugar hit that could do long-term damage

Black Friday has an ominous ring to it and for bricks-and-mortar retailers that ring could well forewarn of a serious threat to their survival. Retail associations and industry commentators have been quick to rejoice the bonanza of last week’s Black Friday sales, which are expected to have generated more than $5 billion for what is effectively a four-day event.

But when the accountants for the bricks-and-mortar retailers sit down to assess the event, the reaction is likely to be more sober, confirming a boost to sales and traffic but at a deep cut to margins and the bottom line.

The excitement of the event may also be tempered post-Christmas when total sales and, more importantly, earnings for the period are analysed.

The Black Friday sale is a clever invention of online vendors that has teased – arguably forced – bricks-and-mortar retailers to join the party in a bid to protect market share, harmonise their online and store promotional offers and to lift sales in a vital trading period.

Make no mistake, Christmas 2019 is crucial to many retailers that are struggling to generate sales growth and a solid profit.

The Black Friday sale is the biggest pre-Christmas event and is looming as a bigger trading event than the Boxing Day and New Year sales. In 2018, the Black Friday event drove November sales past December, a result likely to be repeated in 2019.

November sales this year appeared to be ahead of last year and were gaining momentum in shopping centres ahead of the Black Friday event. The big question is whether or not the Black Friday event will drive that momentum further or suck the oxygen out of December sales.

The answer may well hinge on consumer price perceptions shaped by the deep discounts of the Black Friday sales – if you can sell an item at that price for the sale, why can’t you sell it at this price all the time?

This is one of the dangers for bricks-and-mortar retailers – it’s not a new danger in regard to promotional activity but a significant challenge in pricing strategies.

Matching online vendors in a major deep discount promotional event makes sense on one level, but the cost to bricks-and-mortar retailers is much higher and the potential brand damage much greater.

Bricks-and-mortar retailers have higher costs in staffing and customer service, rent and occupancy costs, inventory management and often in marketing spend than online retailers.

The sales boost is no doubt a shot of adrenalin, but the after-effects could be painful in terms of reduced profits and customers adopting a view of what is the worth or value of merchandise and regular pricepoints.

There is also a sting in the tail for retailers on percentage rent leases. These lift their sales for a lower profit return in an event like Black Friday only to face an increased rent commitment to landlords.

Cyber Monday didn’t seem to maintain the surge in shopping centres as retailers turned into the home stretch for Christmas trading, which the Australian Retailers Association expects should yield a 2.6 per cent increase in sales on 2018 to $51.4 billion.

However, a Christmas survey by Deloitte indicates only 62 per cent of retailers expect higher sales this Christmas and just under 40 per cent anticipate a decrease in margins.

While it may not be the preferred approach for the peak trading period, Deloitte found 39 per cent of retailers will be discounting pre-Christmas to drive sales.

Confidence about Christmas trading and the outlook for 2020 from bricks-and-mortar retailers is significantly lower than at this time last year, according to Deloitte.

The importance of this Christmas trading period is emphasised by the fact that 47 per cent of retailers in the Deloitte survey reported flat or negative sales growth over the past 12 months.

Promotional events like Black Friday sales may add some cheer to flagging revenue growth, but the bottom line must be the real focus if the bills are to be paid and a Christmas hangover avoided.

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