We might look back on 2016 as the year Black Friday hit an inflection point.
The tone towards the annual sales event changed in a big way this year, and several modern luxury brands vocally opposed it. Will others soon follow their lead?
Black Friday was top of mind across the entire US-based fashion media this past weekend. Racked went on a bonanza, devoting over ten pieces to it on Friday. Fashionista and GQ published their usual “best deals” lists. Glossy was more business-oriented, discussing Patagonia’s decision to donate its proceeds to charity. And at the Business of Fashion, New York editor Lauren Sherman got in on the action too, penning a report about “off-price saturation” that indirectly touched the Black Friday theme.
Still, the tenor this year was noticeably different. Alongside the usual Black Friday sales roundups, there were predictions in the media that Black Friday could be sputtering towards an end in the not-too-distant future among forward-thinking brands. As it stands, plenty founders have rightly started to question whether participating in the annual sales event supports their core business models and long term goals. In the modern luxury sector, some have already determined that no, it doesn’t, and two particular brands in our space spoke out loudly against the drug-like pull of Black Friday over the weekend: American Giant and Oliver Cabell.
No boycott measures were taken at American Giant, but CEO Bayard Winthrop, one of the sharpest modern luxury thinkers of anyone, penned a critical op-ed at Recode about the decay of Black Friday. “The traditional Black Friday has failed us,” he wrote. “While it still exists, and will continue to, the day has become a marketing mechanism for dying brands desperate for end-of-year revenue.” Brands that boycott or rethink their approach to the shopping event, he said, are simply responding to (and acknowledging) the savviness of the new luxury shopper. These shoppers clearly see through the ruse, and as people “become increasingly informed and connected, we’re now all fairly aware of the Black Friday song and dance,” he wrote.
Mr. Winthrop’s rhetoric was hard-hitting. But direct-to-consumer luxury bag specialists Oliver Cabell dispensed with rhetoric and instead took action — shutting the site down completely for Black Friday and posting a message explaining their reasoning for doing so. CEO Scott Gabrielson’s decision spoke volumes, and the main thrust of his message to visitors on the site’s front page was both rational and straightforward: “We feel Black Friday encourages overspending and impulse buying, and has put the focus on quantity over quality.”
The response to the move from their customers was mostly positive, at least judging by the comments from customers who felt compelled enough by the initiative to do so. Still, we shudder to even imagine the uproar and the vitriol that would sweep the internet were a mainstream company to pull this type of maneuver.
For a venture like Scott Gabrielson’s, however, this works remarkably well, and even feels natural. That’s because this attitude is completely congruent with Oliver Cabell’s positioning and the message Mr. Gabrielson has worked to spread since launching this summer. In an email to us, he expounded on this in more detail. “We strongly believe that discounting, no matter how often or what time of the year, sends a signal to customers that further discounts will be offered and that you are not currently providing the best value that you can,” he explained. He went on to add that he believes “modern luxury shoppers today hope to build a connection with a brand beyond the products that they offer,” and setting forth a set of ideals goes far in ensuring customers stick with you for longer.
Still, this line of thinking goes beyond Oliver Cabell, and speaks to a much larger theme. Yes, Mr. Gabrielson’s decision to shut down the site is in step with the standards of Oliver Cabell, but it’s also directly consistent with modern luxury thinking in a broader sense — thoughtful, human, transparent, and values-driven. In fact, there’s a shift in preference towards values — over financial incentive — happening among shoppers and brands as we speak, wrote Mr. Winthrop. “Brands, organizations and groups are still motivating consumers to buy,” he argued. “But the lens through which we are now incentivized has changed, and it has become more behavioral and values-driven versus bottom-line savings.”
Be that as it may, it nonetheless takes a certain degree of confidence and self-assurance in both brand and product to forego the temptation to do everything possible just “to get people in the door” after Thanksgiving. And if there’s any sector with a group of companies that have this sort of bold swagger, it is modern luxury space. Indeed, Oliver Cabell’s action is not the first time something like this has been carried out in the modern luxury field: Everlane did it twice in 2012 and 2013, making CEO Michael Preysman’s operation one the first modern luxury companies to take this sort of action. His initial moves felt novel, however, as though just another quirky twist on retail strategy that Everlane has become known for. But a few years on, the feeling is different this time. This year might end up being seen as the tipping point.
To Mr. Winthrop, this is just as well. It marks a return to old ways of doing things before mass market luxury became standard procedure. “High-value products and amazing experiences are now elbowing their way back into the conversation,” he argued. “Oddly, this is a return to values of previous generations, when quality, values and relationships with brands mattered to shoppers. Maybe there’s something we all could learn from today’s younger shoppers, Black Friday be damned.”
Mizzen+Main CEO Kevin Lavelle, certainly among the most outspoken modern luxury founders against the act of discounting — in any form, and especially Black Friday — would also likely agree with Mr. Winthrop here. In an editorial published at Medium, he wrote that Mizzen+Main customers have grown to appreciate the signals that the brand’s no discounting policy sends. Their customers crave tradition and quality, but also “value integrity and authenticity far more than most companies ever allow themselves to believe.”
Without question, this attitude towards the mindless excess of Black Friday (and steep discounting and cheap consumption, more generally) is seeping into the mainstream. But it is, first and foremost, a pure modern luxury ideal. Whether it takes the form of rhetoric in American Giant’s case, or action in the cases of Everlane and Oliver Cabell, it originates with modern luxury businesses and their leaders.
The brands and entrepreneurs in this space are fundamentally changing the tenor and conversation in the market today, and this year, that thinking seems to be taking root to a degree that makes it hard to turn back from. The only question now is how quickly this approach to Black Friday will spread in the next couple of years, and how this might affect larger brands who rely on the annual boost.
One thing is certain, though: Consumers are getting used to the more thoughtful approach from Oliver Cabell and its peers. No, Black Friday isn’t going anywhere, but as Mr. Winthrop believes, there’s a “sea change happening within the consumer mindset — an evolution from passive bystanders to empowered participants.”
“Simply said,” he wrote, “we’re just not buying it anymore.”