How Did Black Friday Develop?

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Figure 1. The Macy's annual Christmas Parade the day after Thanksgiving helped to launch the Christmas shopping season.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has evolved into a shopping day not only pervasive in the United States, but even other countries, which do not celebrate Thanksgiving, still using that day as their start of the holiday shopping season. While the growth of online shopping has transformed its significance, with now shopping deals online extending before and after Black Friday, Black Friday is still seen as the general beginning of the holiday season for many.

Origin of Black Friday

Black Friday may have its origins from the late 19th century and early 20th century, when department stores across the United States began to become not only larger but also more competitive. The term itself was not originally associated with shopping but with a major stock market crash on September 24, 1869. However, that meaning and event lost relevance over the course of the 20th century. In relation to Christmas, department stores, such as Macy's or Lord and Taylor, held annual parades on the day after Thanksgiving as part of their brand promotion and sales for the Christmas shopping period. Many people took the day off after Thanksgiving off, creating a type of free holiday vendors wanted to take advantage of.

Department stores took advantage of this by promoting their brand and sponsoring large parades. Usually these parades were advertising oriented to promote the new products for sale that year or offered discounts on given shopping items in the lead up to Christmas. Usually, department stores and other retailers did not advertise their Christmas items for sale until after Thanksgiving. The department stores, as they grew in influence, began to set a trend in using the day after Thanksgiving as the launch of the Christmas shopping season that generally became more accepted across the United States.

As more stores adopted the trend sent by the department stores, people generally began to see the Friday after Thanksgiving as a time when deals and sales, even the best possible sales of that year, might be offered to entice them over rival shopping competitors. For decades, however, the Friday after Thanksgiving was widely known as the beginning of the shopping season for Christmas but no reference existed for that day.[1]

It is not clear what led to or when the term "Black Friday" came into existence in reference to the day after Thanksgiving as a time that launched the Christmas shopping season. Most likely, in Philadelphia during the late 1950s or early 1960s, increased shopping traffic and pedestrian traffic getting to stores led to more frequent traffic jams and accidents. There was also increased crime as shoplifting and even violent crime increased, leading to the police and other emergency services having to increase their presence during that day. For many emergency services personnel, Black Friday became a dreaded day when they knew they would be busy. Some people began to see that day as disruptive, particularly people who did not take part in the shopping. The term may have then begun as a pejorative for the disruption but soon shoppers themselves or at least the media began to use the term more frequently by the early 1960s.

By the 1960s, the term Black Friday became widely used. Since the 1960s until the late 1990s, Black Friday remained relatively similar, with stores traditionally offering discounts and sales. However, some stores began to try to gain initial advantages by moving Black Friday sales earlier or even opening very early on Black Friday at around midnight or even early in the morning.[2]

Later Developments

Figure 2. Scene such as this have become all too familiar on Black Friday.

By the early 2000s, Black Friday sales led more stores to move their opening times to be earlier. Some of the earliest are around midnight, while others open around 4 or 5 AM (Figure 2). Some stores attempted to open on Thanksgiving Day, effectively moving the start of the shopping season to Thursday. This has largely not worked well, as consumers were mostly interested in being with their family over Thanksgiving. Generally, however, stores have increasingly moved their Christmas shopping offerings to a much earlier date, some starting as early as the day after Halloween.

The phenomenon of Christmas creep, as it is called, has become widespread. In recent years, deep discounts on electronics and traditionally more expensive consumer goods have led to shoppers camping out in front of stores during the Thanksgiving holiday or even before then. In some cases, it has even led to violence between shoppers who compete with each other to purchase limited goods given at deep discounts. Since the 2000s, American companies, including Amazon, have started marketing Black Friday deals in their international outlets. While countries outside of the United States do not celebrate Thanksgiving, countries in Europe, North American and even east Asia began adopting either Black Friday as a discount day for Christmas shopping or even used the week of Thanksgiving as the beginning of promotions for sales.

At times, the term itself has been changed or adapted to local languages and tastes. Even in the UK, Black Friday was a term used for the Friday before Christmas. In that case, it was a term used by hospital and emergency personnel who had to deal with a large increase of patients received before Christmas due to many party goers and drunk behavior increasing workload for such personnel. In other countries, where Christmas is not a major holiday, such as India, retailers have attempted to replicate the idea of Black Friday around days preceding major holidays such as Diwali.[3]

Current Use of Black Friday

Over the last ten years, as Internet shopping has increased, Black Friday has lost some meaning or at least as the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season, as other days and times also offer deals. Now, online retails have promoted Cyber Monday, the first Monday after Thanksgiving, as an additional online start to the shopping season. Over time, however, Black Friday has become popular in many countries.

Now, countries in South America, the Middle East, and other regions have attempted to create Black Friday and Black Friday deals. Online retailers have attempted more creative business strategies, such as combining efforts or creating group shopping experiences, for their customers. Some countries, such as Latvia, where the holiday has proven popular, new innovations to the promotional period have been developed. There, the entire week has been declared as "Black Week" to extend shopping times and promotions over a longer period. In the UK, Black Friday, even though few have that day off, has become so popular among some retail chains that police and extra security have to be called in to prevent outbreaks of fights or violence between customers. In fact, some stores have seen Black Friday as disruptive, due to increased traffic and noise, leading them to even avoid putting any special discounts or promotions so that trouble would not occur. American sporting goods retailer REI decided to close their stores on Black Friday so their employees could spend time with their families and encouraged people to spend time in the outdoors instead of in an indoor mall.

In general, online sales, including on Black Friday, has offered retailers 24 hour shopping and enabled them to extend sales across multiple days. Overall, the effect of Black Friday is still significant in terms of overall sales for many companies, leading to the date as still being significant even as the meaning and use of the date change in recent years.[4]

Summary

Over the decades, Black Friday has almost become a type of unofficial holiday for many. Even for people who do not shop or enjoy shopping, Black Friday is still an experience to go people watching or just to visit stores to watch all the deals and promotions that stores creatively use. More broadly, as companies try to replicate success in the United States, large online and offline retailers have promoted variations of Black Friday abroad, often adapting it to local cultures and traditional holidays, including holidays having nothing to do with Christmas.

References

  1. For more on the development of department stores and their Christmas promotion attempts, including parades, see: Kathan BW (2017) American Holy Days: The Heart and Soul of Our National Holidays. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers. Available at: http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=5050880 (accessed 29 November 2019).
  2. For more on the origin of the term "Black Friday" and its usage, see: Forbes BD (2015) America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
  3. For more on recent developments of Black Friday, see: Hoyer WD, MacInnis DJ and Pieters R (2013) Consumer Behavior. 6th ed. Australia ; Mason, OH: South Western Cengage Learning, pg. 323.
  4. For more on the rise of the Internet and its effect on Black Friday, see: Carr NG (2010) The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. London: Atlantic.