LONDON — The British don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, of course, but they have enthusiastically embraced another great American holiday tradition: Black Friday. A little too enthusiastically, it seems. Now, some retailers are even trying to dial back some of the frenzy they unleashed just a few years after introducing the whole idea.
That’s because, for a nation that prides itself on its decorous behavior, last year was ugly. Or, what in America is called a typical Black Friday.
At one flagship Asda store in northwest London, part of a retail chain owned by Walmart, one young woman was seen on the floor, desperately clinging to a 40-inch discounted television as several teenagers tried to grab it away.
In Middleton, in Greater Manchester, 200 shoppers barricaded themselves in a Tesco store demanding the promised sale goods, even after all the stock had been depleted.
The BBC reported that shoppers in different parts of the country had experienced gridlock, biting, pinching, punching, kicking and stock flying through the air as people leapt over barriers to get their hands on heavily discounted items. Police reinforcements had to be called in at stores all across the country for Black Friday, a name apparently coined by the Philadelphia Police Department in the early 1960s to describe the shopping and traffic turmoil that followed the holiday.
Retailers this year are trying to tamp down the mayhem. Asda said it was dropping Black Friday this year because of “shopper fatigue.” “This year customers have told us loud and clear that they don’t want to be held hostage to a day or two of sales,” said Andy Clarke, the company’s chief executive. Instead, the retailer said it would offer discounts from November to January.
Nevertheless, Black Friday seems here to stay in one form or another, leading many to question exactly why their country seems to have so quickly adopted a distasteful commercial binge that exists in the United States only because Friday is a holiday for many people.
Indeed, a Black Friday backlash appears to be gathering force at a time when some traditionalists are already bemoaning the way that Halloween, with its kitsch and goofy costumes and edible eyeball cakes, is slowly supplanting Guy Fawkes Day, the four-centuries-old British festival that falls on Nov. 5.
“We have plenty of our own traditions, such as Morris dancing, boarding schools, warm beer and aristocrats, many of which are even weirder than marshmallow-topped potatoes,” said Sarah Vine, a columnist for The Daily Mail. “But at least we don’t try to shove them on unsuspecting foreigners.”
She noted that even her tiny, corner manicure shop in West London had emailed her its Black Friday discounts.
Sensing a populist cause, some members of Parliament, including Jeremy Corbyn, who is now opposition Labour leader, put forward a nonbinding motion in the House of Commons last January railing against large retailers who chose to adopt “the American retail custom of Black Friday,” saying it was an affront to public order and a drain on police resources.
Sir Peter Bottomley, a Conservative member of Parliament, said he had signed the motion after several shoppers were seriously injured during Black Friday shopping skirmishes. “In a country of polite queuing, some people forgot British patience because they were so excited about special offers,” he said.
The explanation for how Britons came to embrace Black Friday seems to reside in a mix of canny unbridled capitalist opportunism, the fetishizing of things American, the explosion of online shopping and two giant retailers called Walmart and Amazon.
The British media has credited Amazon, the e-commerce juggernaut, with first importing Black Friday in 2010 when it started to offer Black Friday discounts, spurring other retailers to follow suit. But it was when the retailer Asda, inspired by its parent company Walmart, began marketing Black Friday offers in its stores two years ago that the phenomenon really took off, according to the company.
Black Friday is big business in Britain, and the Center for Retail Research estimates that online spending alone on Friday will reach 966 million pounds, or $1.46 billion. Last year, the giant retailer John Lewis said Black Friday gave it its busiest sales week in its 150-year history. eBay predicts that nine million Britons will visit its website on Friday, buying 25 items every second.
John Lewis said that it would be announcing unspecified discounts on unspecified electrical items that would remain top secret for unspecified reasons until Black Friday began. Asked why the chain had embraced Black Friday, Jack Gorman, a spokesman, appeared to attribute the phenomenon to a pack mentality.
“I don’t know,” he said, “it’s one of these things that everyone picked up on.” In an emailed statement, he added: “Black Friday is hugely popular with our customers and they now expect it from us as a major U.K. retailer.”
At a branch of the traditional retail chain Marks & Spencer in Islington, North London, a giant sign on the store’s window promoted “Black Friday Weekend” and 50 percent discounts on selected items including cashmere sweaters, nightwear and Christmas crackers.
Valerie Faulkner, 41, an assistant producer at an events company who was walking through the store, said she initially had no idea that Black Friday was an American tradition until she searched for it on Google.
“I don’t think most people realize it’s an American custom,” she said. “I just assumed it was some marketing ploy by shops to get rid of lousy, unwanted items before Christmas.”