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Deals and Donuts: How Independent Retailers Tackle Black Friday

Deals and Donuts: How Independent Retailers Tackle Black Friday

It's 8:45 AM and our Uber driver weaves through morning rush hour traffic. It’s overcast when we arrive at Jelly Modern to pick up nine boxes of assorted donuts topped and stuffed and slathered with impossible flavours like Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla and Lemon Curd.

To the naked eye, it's just another Friday in Toronto, but for retailers here (and all over North America) this is the Friday. Black Friday, to be exact. Our mission: uncover the story of independent merchants on the busiest shopping day of the year. Our weapon: carbs.

Freeman's Sporting Club

photo: Denny Balmaceda

Let’s take a step back, shall we? Black Friday: what does the annual shopping event bring to mind? Camp-out line-ups for blowout deals on UHD TVs, crushing mobs fighting over deeply discounted linens, moms wielding pepper spray to snag the last Disney Frozen Sing-A-Long Elsa?

It’s been suggested that the term “Black Friday” was actually coined in an attempt to curb such madness, but we all know how that story ends.

I couldn’t quite imagine fist fights at a local apparel pop-up (in polite-as-punch Canada), but we decided to investigate. We anticipated that the holiday would still be hectic for smaller merchants, but to what degree?

To get the scoop, Shopify’s Social and UX teams partnered with local bloggers and Instagram darlings to reach some of our favorite brick and mortar shops face to face. Our “elves” simultaneously delivered donuts and joy to over 50 merchants in 9 cities across North America.

Bryn Newman

photo: Bryn Newman

In the process, we learned a lot about the softer side of Black Friday: merchants foregoing sales in favour of charity partnerships, bustling pop-ups within pop-ups, and a commitment to giving back to loyal customers and the community.

Here are some of the day’s caramel-drizzled highlights:

Shopify BFCM

Giving back

Our Ottawa team bestowed sweets upon Goods Shop, only to discover that in lieu of giving 20% back to their customers, they paid it forward to local charity Ten Oaks Project. Did the decision turn off shoppers? Quite the contrary, says owner Jessica Wilson-Frenken. “Every person that came in the store was told about our offer and no one left empty handed, so I'm calling it a success.”

Toronto’s Fitzroy Boutique followed suit, donating a portion of their own sales to charity. Was this generosity strictly a Canadian phenomenon? Nope. My inbox was replete with emails from US merchants too – North Carolina’s Bomisch gave 10% of BFCM sales to a local animal rescue organization. Thankfully for the rest of us, Giving Tuesday followed the long weekend’s orgy of shopping and turkey. Good karma achievement unlocked!

Good's Shop Tweet

Community first

B.Y.O.B. Cocktail Emporium wasn’t promoting Black Friday when we descended upon their Toronto store, nor did they have any sales. The shop’s manager told us that they reserve discounts for their restaurant customers, in an effort to build relationships with other local businesses.

Community was the keyword on the west coast, too. San Francisco merchant, Rare Device was getting ready for Small Business Saturday, choosing to focus efforts on a date that celebrates entrepreneurship and shopping locally. 

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, Violet Boutique threw a holiday party for loyal customers and continued the sale quietly through Black Friday. While they didn’t experience a huge surge in foot traffic, they used the occasion to give thanks to their biggest fans. Violet’s clever owners clearly hold the key to turning one-time shoppers into lifelong customers.

Violet Boutique

photo: Her Waise Choice

Opting out

For many small brands, offering deep discounts just isn’t feasible. Calgary’s The Livery Shop admitted that their margins were too low to participate in Black Friday this year. Goods Shop can relate, Jessica tells us: “90% of the artists we carry are really small producers. The price they've chosen is based on their labour and materials and it’s often already undervalued, so discounting for the sake of keeping up with big companies feels wrong.” 

Merchants opted out for other reasons, too. Back in Toronto, Adrift was not offering any deals to their customers when we arrived. As a high-end streetwear shop, brand prestige and integrity are everything. While they typically run two annual sales, Black Friday just wasn’t one of them. 

We noticed the same trend in online stores. Veteran Shopify merchant Eric Bandholz of Beardbrand wrote to his customers last week regarding his decision to not participate in retailer holidays:

“We want you to use our products because they bring a little joy and value to your life, not because of a fleeting sale or holiday deal.”

We were curious: how did his customers react? “This email was very highly regarded from our customers. When we open ourselves up and share our core beliefs, we’ve found that our customers have done the same,” he explains, “It’s definitely a tough decision to make, but for us life is much more than generating the highest amount of revenue. It’s about changing the world for better and being a source of inspiration and guidance for our audience.”


photo (and header): Carolynn Lacasse

Pop-up shops

Online-only merchants can benefit from pop-up retail, especially when strategically aligned with busy local events and even busier shopping holidays. In Houston, Christina’s Sun Child pop-up was popping. She used the opportunity to reconnect with customers and gain new inspiration from face to face interaction. “All the logistical things can be a nightmare, but when you see the fruits of your labor and how happy your customers are, it makes it worth it.” 

Fitzroy’s Angela Crossley used her pop-up to team up with another local business, Jayu. “It’s a pop-up within a pop-up!” Partnering up on space is a great way to cut overhead costs, and borrow from the audiences and customers of complementary brands.

Lo Well

photo: Kevin Clark

While we wrapped up our fact-finding mission delivering our last boxes of crème-filled goodies to Montreal's Lo Well and NYC's Kith, it was only the beginning of a frenzied weekend for independent merchants everywhere. We escaped Black Friday unscathed, and thrilled to have discovered the lighter side of an occasion that’s had its fair share of bad press.

While some stores were almost too busy to enjoy our treats, the energy was always positive, and pepper spray nowhere to be found. 

Donut Delivery

photo: Sarah Theresa

Rare Device

photo: Bryn Newman

Magpie Ottawa

photo: Carolynn Lacasse

Vanessa Cessario

photo: Vanessa Cessario

Shopify BFCM Infographic

Special thanks to our team of ambassadors, who delivered happiness in the form sprinkles and caffeine: Elise Bauman, Sarah Theresa, Bryn of Stone Fox Style, Denny Balmaceda, Jen of Her Waise Choice, Vanessa of The Brunette Salad, and Carolynn of J’Adore This.