What does the Black Friday of the future have ‘in store’ for us?

Black Friday, a term which originated in the US and refers to the first shopping day after Thanksgiving, has become common parlance in recent years. The specific meaning behind the phrase is still a matter of debate, with theories ranging from “the first time retailers start to show a profit for the calendar year,” to references to the manic traffic jams, or the extreme behaviour of some bargain hunting shoppers that has become synonymous with the event.

But regardless of the precise origins, Black Friday is here to stay. According to PWC, Black Friday was projected to be worth £5bn in retail sales last year. So rather than looking back, retailers would be better served focusing on the future of Black Friday – especially in the context of rapidly advancing technology that is revolutionising the sector as a whole. After all, it is technology that has given rise to Black Friday’s online equivalent, Cyber Monday. But if we look to the future, the line between the two events will become increasingly blurred, and the retail experience is likely to change beyond recognition for customer and retailer alike. Below are some examples of the ways this could unfold:

Stress-free stores

There will always be physical stores on our streets for those willing to brave Black Friday in search of a bargain. But with the advent of smart cities and the rise of autonomous vehicles on the horizon, traffic jams and hunting for parking spaces could soon be a thing of the past. The future Black Friday shopper is likely to leave their car, enter the retail fray and, whilst walking past a shop, be ‘buzzed’ by their smartphone or wearable device with a notification enticing them to enter.

Once inside the store, our future Black Friday shopper will be identified by the in-store WiFi, which also receives their buying habits courtesy of big data. Like a digital personal shopper, the WiFi then guides customers effortlessly to their items of choice and preference. Even the stress associated with paying is removed, as ‘on-the-go’ methods and digital currencies eliminate queues and checkouts from the process. In fact, in-store gift wrapping services may be one of the few in-store services to retain an element of human interaction in future Black Fridays.

Virtually painless purchases

But for the time-poor who nonetheless enjoy the thrill of strolling the aisles, future Black Friday will pose an alternative option. Customers will be able to don a VR headset and be transported to a virtual retail emporium. From the comfort of their own home, they will then be able to examine goods, check reviews, ask questions of the staff and chat to fellow VR shoppers. Paradise, surely? Well – maybe not for all.

As evidenced by the rise of Cyber Monday, some people simply do not wish to trek around retail stores, whether physical or virtual. But Cyber Monday is unlikely to continue to exist in its current form. Whether we use them or not, anyone today with a so-called smartphone has their own 24/7 “digital assistant” somewhere about their person. Not only that, but just like having gas, electricity and running water, more and more households are plumbed directly into the Internet.

Therefore, the Cyber Monday of the future is more likely to descend into its own latter-day equivalent of Black Friday, featuring web traffic and customer chaos as millions of Alexa’s, Cortana’s, Siri’s and other forms of AI, swarm to the online shops, clogging the Internet highways in an effort to be first in the digital queue when the doors open for business. Why? Because they have been instructed, or more likely, they have figured out for themselves, to snatch that special item for us at a knock-down price as soon as it becomes available online.

The new wave of retail events

Some say that predictions of the future can be frightening, exciting, or considered pure fantasy. But the same cannot be said for digital transformation as it’s happening now. High Street stores already have it in their power to draw customers in and keep them there for longer than originally intended. And successful retail businesses have learned how the latest generation Wi-Fi and SD-WAN equipment can track us around their stores and provide easy access to online services, without jeopardising their own PoS and back office systems.

It may be fair to say that autonomous vehicles have yet to become a common sight on our roads, but the number of smart cities grows by the day, with edge computing as a catalyst. For all the right reasons, the Internet of Things is spreading like wildfire across our world, reaching our homes, the places we travel to, as well as the people and systems we interact with. Physical or online retailers that ride the wave of agile, software defined IT, combined with the visibility and control that comes with big data analysis and machine learning, are already leaving competitors wallowing in their wake. Today is the new tomorrow.

By Paul Griffiths, senior director advanced technology group, Riverbed Technology

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