How can we, as an ethical company, create an alternative Black Friday?

7 minute read

The search for an alternative Black Friday

For the past three years, we've sat down at the end of summer and asked the same question: “What should we do on Black Friday this year?” While it’s not comparable to the consumption madness in the US, we've seen a dramatic increase in Black Friday activity in Europe, so the question becomes ever more relevant.


So, what options does an ethical company have for creating an alternative Black Friday, away from the crazy stampedes and phoney discounts? We thought we’d give you an insight into this year’s meeting to see what options we discussed.


1. Ignore it
This is a very attractive option and it would save us a lot of time and energy. However, we feel that to do nothing is to stick your head in the sand and pretend Black Friday doesn’t exist. The truth is, whether we like or not, the vast majority of visitors to our website on 27th November will know that it’s Black Friday and ignoring that fact will make us seem oblivious to the world around us.


We’d rather use this opportunity to show our customers that we are aware it's Black Friday and we’re doing it the Librio way.


2. Offer big discounts
This was a non-starter for us. Just going along with it and doing the same as almost every other company doesn’t seem the best way of showing that we feel people should be much more thoughtful about the way they shop.

Librio Black Friday REI

3. Shut down the website for the day

Now we’re getting into the topics that really got the discussion flowing. The inspiration for this is one of the most famous alternative Black Friday initiatives by outdoor shop REI. Every Black Friday, they close all their stores and encourage their employees to spend the day outside, rather than spending the day fighting with bargain-hunters. 


For an outdoor brand, this action makes 100% sense and is inspiring. For a personalised children’s book brand, we weren’t so sure. What would really the point of closing down the website? We could say, “Spend some time with your kids instead of shopping”, but the message doesn’t really resonate as much as it does with REI. Many of our customers are childless godparents, grandparents or parents of school age children who wouldn’t have the option of spending time with their family even if they wanted to and are specifically using this child-free time to get some Christmas shopping done. 


This option highlights the paradox we face with Black Friday. As a startup, we do need the revenue from Black Friday to help us in our struggle to survive, so to just say no to that revenue could be self-destructive. On Black Friday 2019, we made enough revenue to pay our entire wage bill for the month, so we are not yet in the luxurious position of great profitability to be able to make a devastatingly bold move like this. 


One of the arguments in favour of this option was, “Well, we won’t lose the revenue, because people will probably come back another day anyway”, but if that’s the case, what exactly are we trying to achieve by doing this if we don’t have a compelling message to go with it, as REI do? It almost feels like this option is just inconveniencing our customers, even if it is attractive in a flipping-the-finger-to-Black-Friday kind of way.


This attitude also highlights the dirty fact that any Black Friday activity, however noble, is marketing in a way. That's especially true if you chase PR with it (as we'll see below). It's hard to get away from the fact that the bolder the activity, the more you're hoping to get publicity for it to drive more sales in future. This is why we've decided against any PR for our activities. We feel if we're doing something "noble" to get PR, we're not much better than those offering mega discounts to gain new customers.

4. Donate all Black Friday sales to charity

Another inspirational option from the Ethical Company God, Patagonia. In 2016, they donated all their Black Friday revenue - an incredible $10 million - to grassroots climate organisations. We LOVE this option. It embodies exactly how we'd like to do business and we feel it is the absolutely perfect message for an ethical company.


As discussed in option three, this is something which could be extremely detrimental to us financially, so we really can’t take that risk unless we’re a bit closer in size to Patagonia (this amount represented “only” 1.1% of their annual sales in 2016, whereas it is a far more significant portion for us).


And there is also the nagging feeling that, even for a company of High Ethics like Patagonia, this was essentially a brilliant marketing ploy to gain more market share by giving away money on one day of the year. When they announced the promotion, Patagonia expected to make $2 million in sales that day, but through great publicity, they were able to sell 500% more than expected. Sales which no doubt increased their brand awareness and more than paid off for the promotion over time. We feel it would be more impactful if they did this - or something of this significance - every year like REI rather than just on a one-off basis. 


Overall, though, Option 4 is the one we have our eyes on for a date in the future when the good ship Librio is navigating more stable waters.

Librio Black Friday

5. Just do what we did before

And so, we came to the end of the discussion and the last remaining viable option was to do what we did last year. Maybe our discussion in 2019 got it bang on and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 


In fact, we decided to do the a mix of 2018 and 2019's activities.


In 2018, we renamed it Colourful Friday, which we're doing again, because it sounds more in keeping with a children's publisher.


In 2019, we offered 0% discounts on our website, but in return we increased our donations to our charity partner 300% - from one book donated per purchase to three.


Our message, and we feel it is a compelling one, was this: 

By not offering you, Buyer in a Western country, a discount, Librio can take the money we would have otherwise given you and give it instead to an organisation working to improve the world for those less fortunate than ourselves. 


To us, this feels like the perfect blend of 

- not taking part in the discount merry-go-round

- showing potential customers where our values lie

- making customers think whether they really need to buy all that discounted stuff elsewhere

- and, best of all, trebling our donations to our charity partners


What’s different versus last year

- Last year, we phrased the promotion as a kind of fundraiser “Help us give lots of books and we’ll do more good together”. In retrospect, this feels somewhat cynical. Our goal is not necessarily to sell more books on Black Friday and fuel the consumption fire, it’s to increase our donations for those sales that we do make. So no donation goal in 2020 and beyond. Which is a pity, because we do love that little illustration with the mice. 


- Last year, we only trebled our donations to our book donation partner, Room to Read, but not to our tree planting partner, Trees for the Future. To be perfectly honest, this was because we didn’t want the message to become too muddled. However, we’re beginning to get to grips with how to discuss our dual charitable donations, so we want to support our environmental partner too this time round. 


- And lastly, very importantly, we realised last year that, by not offering our usual discounts on the website (for example newsletter signups and multi-book-order discounts), there was actually a possibility that we’d make more profit through this promotion than we would if we did Option 1 and ignored Black Friday all together. This is obviously not the goal here. And so in 2020, we’ll analyse our expected profit for Option 1 and our actual profit for Option 5 and, if there’s a surplus, we’ll donate that too.


We’re glad we had this discussion in depth again in 2020 and that we realised that the steps we took in 2018 and 2019 were already in the right direction. Hopefully, it means we can build on this promotion in 2021 rather than having to have the discussion all over again.