From Click Frenzy to Cyber Monday: how online sales became an ‘unofficial sport’

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Five stores email you on the same day. There’s a big sale coming tomorrow. You make a note in your calendar, planning to get some Christmas shopping done. By the time you log off the next day, a little dazed, you have an extra set of bedsheets and a popcorn machine you had no intention of buying.

It was that pop-up offer that did you in – a little red ticker ran across the screen saying “Hurry! Only three items left!” It was probably driven by a machine-learning algorithm.

“There is something biological going on, that creates a frenzied momentum and scale around these things,” says Christina Aventi, chief strategy officer at advertising agency BMF, and frequent guest on ABC’s Gruen Transfer.

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For the next 20 days, Australia will be buffeted by online sales. At 7pm on 10 November, Click Frenzy kicks off. The next day, inboxes will ping with Singles Day deals. On 27 November, Black Friday will hit (along with its culturally loaded moniker), followed on 30 November by Cyber Monday.

All promise time-limited offers, deep discounts and most of all, a sense of occasion. And with the exception of Click Frenzy, all are international. “The power of the event-sale is you get that en-masse Fomo,” Aventi explains.

Singles Day is an “unofficial” Chinese shopping holiday, led by ecommerce giant Alibaba, while Black Friday and Cyber Monday are American imports – taking place around Thanksgiving. Although Australia does not have the public holidays that originally prompted the sales, local retailers now take part in increasing numbers.

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“We are quickly seeing the globalisation of promotional events,” says Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra, meaning international sales are “now part of the Australian shopping tradition”.

Savvy shopping is the unofficial sport for the person who’s not athleticChristina Aventi

But traditions are going out the window this year. Online shopping was already replacing traditional retail, before a pandemic stopped us all from leaving our houses. In September, Zahra says, online shopping increased by 82% year on year, based on figures from Australia Post. “Since April more than 1 million households have shopped online for the first time,” and everyone is buying online more. “1.7 times more on average when compared to 2019,” he says.

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Aventi says as retail becomes increasingly digital, Australian brands have had to recalibrate their shopping calendars. “In a borderless online environment you just can’t compete,” she explains. When “some of the biggest retailers in the world” all offer discounts at the same time, Australian brands have no choice but to step in line or get ignored.

“It’s basically a sport,” she says. For consumers, “savvy shopping is the unofficial sport for the person who’s not athletic. Even when you look at the commentary around it – people will talk about having a ‘game plan’.” That’s true for retailers too: “They’re competing against each other and they’re all trying to win.”

The name “Click Frenzy” says a lot about the mindset one-day sales are trying to inspire. While she won’t go as far as to liken big sales events to panic-buying, Aventi concedes “they share a bit of DNA in terms of Fomo”. She says sale days are “stimulus response, it is Pavlov’s dog. You build equity in that day, you build memory capital. People will think ‘I’ll wait for that sale’ and you’ll hold out.”

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A lot of planning goes into the timing – “when people might have a bit of cash flow, or they’re looking ahead to gifting.” November sales are particularly effective because there’s “a key trigger” – the lead-up to Christmas. “You’ve got to have a motivation,” says Aventi. “Some sort of permission, a sense of ‘I’ve earned it’ … it’s not top of mind, it operates in the subconscious.”

Shopping for others hits that trigger – and so does buying at a discount. “There’s a tinge of guilt if you’re say, buying on credit … but what a good deal does is make you feel savvy and it neutralises that guilt.” While it might cause a feel good rush in the moment, this “can lead to an addiction cycle or a compulsion loop, which is a bit dangerous”, says Aventi.

All those factors – a sense that other people are doing it, a sense that you have to act fast or you will miss out, and a sense that the spending is justifiable – are present in one-day sales. These impulses are all great for retailers, but not always for consumers.

Aventi notes the act-fast mindset also means sales are a chance to clear less-popular items quickly. “They don’t want that stock in their inventory, because that’s cost if it’s just sitting in a warehouse.”

“God I hate this ‘art of persuasion’ stuff,” she jokes. “Know that we’re decent people – it’s not like the Mad Men days.”

When asked if one-day sales create any issues for retailers, Zahra says “there are greater drawbacks for retailers that are not participating”.

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One-day sales have proliferated because they work. A timed offer is more exhilarating than trudging around a picked-through discount aisle. But Aventi believes we’ll soon reach a tipping point. “There will have to be some kind of survival of the fittest,” Aventi says. “There will be some [sales days] that will be weak performers … bigger sales that’ll eat the smaller ones up … And the long tail will fall by the wayside.”

End-of-financial-year sales are already a victim of this in Australia. And while Boxing Day still has some cache, Aventi and Zahra both note Australian retailers have started “front-loading” their stock. While Australia’s shopping calendar may have evolved to become more digital, and more global, our brains are still driven by those age-old instincts. Buyer beware.