From gravy train to hamster wheel

Gary - 18 th December 2015

1988. I remember it well. I was in the Marketing department of Thorn EMI which was, at the time one of the big players in British Retailing (honest!): Radio Rentals, DER, Rumbelows and HMV were all part of the group. One of the big things I remember from my time there was helping develop the ad campaign focused on the tagline "Should have gone to Radio Rentals". A classic of its time and it amuses me no end when I see the current award winning Specsavers campaign………nuff said.

The other, more pressing issue, I remember was that despite successive years of double digit growth we could not hide the fact that the availability of cheap credit was eroding the TV and Rental market and making life very difficult for our sector.  Faced with this potentially catastrophic impact on our market we decided not to fight back with insight, innovation and communication and instead ‘invented’ the big deal - rent a TV and get a portable for free! Of course it worked a treat and we outperformed the market and the decline was seemingly arrested. Happy days.

But they were short lived happy days.  More like a ‘happy hour’.  As the promotional calendar came around again we had to run the same promotion. Nothing else we did would shift those TVs. When we started to fall behind budget we added Interest Free Credit and, almost immediately, we were copied. We thought we had climbed on the gravy train but found ourselves effectively giving it away, we were on the hamster wheel of continues promotion with no way to jump off.

Given this bitter experience it is probably no wonder that I watched the phenomenon that is ‘Black Friday’ with some interest. We all know its transatlantic origins and last year everyone jumped on the gravy train with varying degrees of success. I could understand the commercial pressures to get involved and not miss out, I could hear the market share, volume and margin debates in board rooms but I feared that it could end in tears.  Famously, ASDA jumped off the wheel this year but most of the others ran Black Friday promotions and hoped for a repeat of the previous years’ success.

So now it is over we have to ask the question, who won? Overall, the results were good. Retail sales were up by 1.7% month on month in November and, compared to the same month last year, were up 5%. Despite this, many commentators are saying that it is ‘too early’ to say whether Black Friday was really a success for retailers although some, especially John Lewis who claimed that it was ‘their busiest ever day’, are trying to claim ‘victory’.  Assessing who are the winners in the long term may be more difficult but if the experiences of those who have decided to jump on various hamster wheels are anything to go by it may be those who decided to stay of that eventually win through. 


Gary is the chairman and one of the original founders of Brand Vista. With over 20 years of brand experience both on the client and agency side he loves finding out what customers and consumers are really thinking and turning this knowledge into compelling brand propositions that succeed in the real world.
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