Bargains and brawls: "Black Friday" comes to Britain

Bargains and brawls: "Black Friday" comes to Britain
Two shoppers fall onto the ground as they grapple for a TV.

LONDON - British police officers were called to stores across the country on Friday as the "Black Friday" shopping frenzy imported from the United States brought surging crowds and fights over sharply discounted goods.

For the first time, most British retailers have fully embraced "Black Friday" promotions this year, both in store and online, seeking to follow their cousins across the Atlantic and kickstart trading early in the key Christmas period.

The day after the US Thanksgiving holiday, which falls on the fourth Thursday of November, is extravagantly promoted in the United States as the start of the Christmas shopping season. The surge in spending is said to make it the day when retailers finally show a profit for the year, or go "into the black".

With no national holiday in late November, people in Britain had no reason to notice the day until American online retailer Amazon brought its Black Friday sales across the Atlantic in 2010.

Last year marked the first time major UK store groups such as John Lewis, Dixons and Wal-Mart's Asda participated in a serious way, and this year has seen the trend explode across a majority of the British retail sector.

A survey commissioned by Barclays found that 65 per cent of British retailers that sell both online and in stores planned Black Friday promotions.

Supermarket leader Tesco, clothing retailer Marks & Spencer, and electricals retailers Dixons and Argos are doing far bigger promotions than before. Others, like No 3 grocer Sainsbury's are participating for the first time.

The trend is also emerging in continental Europe, with Spanish department store El Corte Ingles using the term "Black Friday", in English, to advertise price cuts and promotions appearing in France and Denmark.

Police were called in to control crowds that had gathered overnight in London, Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow, drawn by cheap televisions, kitchen goods and clothes. Three arrests were made at Tesco stores in Manchester and officers were called out to four others in the area.

"The events of last night were totally predictable and I am disappointed that stores did not have sufficient security staff on duty," Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Peter Fahy said.

Queues started forming at Asda's superstore at Wembley, north London, from 0500 GMT. Its doors opened at 0800 GMT and by 0900 many of the best bargains had gone.

"There was a fight in the queue in front of us," said shopper Kristina Butts, 44, who missed out on the Polaroid 40 inch TV and Xbox bundle she was after.

When the last of the TVs discounted by 50 per cent to 299 pounds ($469) was sold, a staff member held it up and shouted: "When it's gone, it's gone."

One woman shopper on a mobility scooter drove away from the store shouting: "I will never do this again."

Whether embracing Black Friday makes commercial sense for UK retailers remains open to debate.

"All Black Friday is likely to do is bring forward business from December, reduce gross margins and undermine consumers' willingness to pay full-price again before Christmas," said independent retail analyst Nick Bubb. Retailers that were not involved, like clothing retailer Next, were "thinking long-term and preserving their pricing power", Bubb said.

Asda argues it can protect profit margins by leveraging the huge global purchasing power of its giant American parent Wal-Mart. Dixons says it can maintain margins by placing especially large orders with suppliers so it can secure favourable terms.

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