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What Is Black Friday – History of the Holiday Shopping Phenomenon

By Miranda Marquit

black friday salesIn November, many bargain hunters’ thoughts turn to the day following Thanksgiving. On the fourth Friday of the month, shoppers across the United States take advantage of widespread bargains and scramble for Black Friday doorbuster deals, deeply discounted products available in limited quantities.

Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year and the official kick-off to the Christmas shopping season.

So where did this tradition come from, and is Black Friday really that big of a deal?

History of Black Friday

Black Friday’s Origins

Many people believe that the parades featuring Santa Claus held on Thanksgiving first heralded the beginning of the holiday shopping season. Department stores like Macy’s in New York, the now-defunct Eaton’s in Toronto, and other department stores frequently sponsored the holiday parades throughout the 20th century. Sponsoring Christmas parades gave stores an opportunity to begin advertising holiday sales.

Over time, it became an unwritten rule that Christmas advertising didn’t start until after the parades. For decades, retailers adhered to the rule, waiting until the day after Thanksgiving to advertise holiday deals.

Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official national holiday during the Civil War, establishing it as the final Thursday in November – a designation that lasted for 70 years. But in 1939, for the second time in six years, the last Thursday in November fell on the 30th. Distraught over a shorter Christmas shopping season, retailers approached President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked him to change the date.

Though retailers wanted a holiday shopping season that lasted longer than 24 days before Christmas, none wanted to break the tradition of waiting until after Thanksgiving to advertise their reduced holiday prices. FDR, trying to end the country’s depression by stimulating spending, agreed to the idea and changed the date of the holiday. On December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law setting the fourth Thursday in November as the official date of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Today, many people continue to regard the day after Thanksgiving as the official start of the holiday shopping season.

Why Black Friday Is “Black”

Contrary to popular belief, Black Friday didn’t derive its name from the idea that the holiday shopping season moves retailers from being “in the red” (experiencing losses) to being “in the black” (showing profits).

Media reports from 1966 reveal that police officers in Philadelphia first referred to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday” because of the increased traffic jams and large amounts of pedestrian traffic in the city’s shopping district. For Philadelphia police, bus drivers, cab drivers, and others who tried to control and navigate the shopping hordes, the day was bleak – and, therefore, “black.”

However, retailers didn’t like the negative connotations surrounding such an important shopping day. Alternative stories about Black Friday began to emerge in the 1980s. Today, shoppers believe that retailers’ balance sheets move into the black on the day after Thanksgiving, and accept the idea that Black Friday is a retail holiday.

Black Friday’s Popularity Growth

Interestingly, the day after Thanksgiving has only recently become the biggest shopping day of the year. Between 1993 and 2001, it ranked between fifth and tenth on the list of the busiest shopping days. In fact, for years, the busiest shopping day was usually the Saturday before Christmas.

But things changed in 2002. That was the year Black Friday took the lead, and it has remained the busiest shopping day of the year ever since, with the exception of 2004 when it was second. Experts speculate that shopping on the day after Thanksgiving has become more popular because many people have the day off, stores offer extended hours, and almost every store seems to have a sale on the day after Thanksgiving.

black friday shoppers

Black Friday Today

The Urgency of Black Friday

Black Friday is an ingrained part of our collective shopping culture, and as such, there is a great deal of hype surrounding limited quantity doorbusters, which can offer up to 80% off retail prices. Shoppers can only get these special deals at the very beginning of the sales, right when the doors open. Moreover, major retailers create a sense of urgency by offering special deals to draw the crowds into stores even after doorbusters have sold out.

Some of these additional methods that stores employ to create urgency include:

  • Advertising ridiculously low prices on certain items
  • Offering special sales for limited hours during the day
  • Limiting the number of items available for purchase at the special price
  • Offering additional loss leaders, merchandise priced lower than actual cost

Retailers design these methods to encourage consumers who hope to find once-in-a-lifetime deals to flock to the stores. The stores hope that shoppers will stick around and buy full-priced items in addition to pillaging their discounted merchandise.

Some stores open at midnight on Thanksgiving night, while others open between 2AM and 5AM. Black Friday camping has become popular as shoppers line up for doorbusters up to a day in advance of stores opening.

Lastly, with the advent of the Internet, stores have begun to release their flyers online as a way to further create excitement and urgency well in advance of Black Friday. Fortunately, these pre-releases of doorbuster and sale information has also allowed enthusiastic consumers to determine the best deals and carefully plan shopping routes before the big day arrives.

The Consequences of Black Friday

Unfortunately, Black Friday has also come to represent the consumer excesses of our society and addiction to consumer electronics. News reports on the day after Thanksgiving feature hordes of crazed shoppers, desperate for deals. While in the vast majority of stores volatile behavior is usually limited to shoving and rude comments, there have been more serious incidents reported, including trampling deaths.

In 2008, the first death attributed to Black Friday fanaticism was recorded at a Walmart in Valley Stream, New York. Stampeding shoppers trampled an employee to death. Consumers refused to stop their rush when store employees tried to help their coworker, ultimately contributing to the man’s demise. Shoppers also buffeted the police officers who arrived to help.

The incident illustrates how ugly ordinary people can become when frenzied by consumerism and materialism. Shoppers who do not exercise caution could find themselves in danger. Reports of fist fights, stabbings, and gun threats have all occurred at stores on the retail holiday. Safe shopping on Black Friday is important – be sure to exercise caution.

Final Word

Some people enjoy the Black Friday experience. Getting up early or eschewing bedtime altogether to stand in line at a store to get a good bargain can be exciting. Plus, the savings can make standing in line and missing a few hours of shut-eye worthwhile. Many bargain hunters accomplish their Christmas shopping in one day and save a bundle.

These days, however, you have other shopping options to avoid the turmoil. Many retailers begin offering deals on Thanksgiving Day or earlier. Forget braving the cold and crowds; you can get spectacular shopping deals online without having to get dressed or stressed, especially on Cyber Monday. In addition to the reduced retail rates, you can often receive free shipping when you shop online during the holiday season.

Before you head to the malls on the day after Thanksgiving, consider your options. Will you really get a good deal? How much time do you want to spend in traffic, in line outside the store, and waiting for your turn at the check-out stand?

In addition, make sure to carefully consider whether you can find a better bargain online. This year, you may not have to leave home at all to get the best deals on Christmas gifts.

Do you participate in Black Friday shopping? What deals are you looking forward to?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Miranda Marquit
Miranda Marquit is a freelance writer and professional blogger specializing in personal finance. She writes for several web sites, and her work has appeared in numerous online and offline publications. You can find Miranda's personal finance blog at AllBusiness.com.

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  • http://twitter.com/moneywisdoms Samirian Hill

    Great Article on the history and tactics of Black Friday. I no longer participate, even though I can not resist looking at the ads after Thanksgiving dinner. The best deals are the electronics, but I find that most other items are not really a good deal. Sales on clothes get better as the season progresses.

    • http://twitter.com/MMarquit MMarquit

      I notice, with electronics, a lot of the time it’s not the top of line. For some, that’s not a problem, but for others, it might make a difference. Anyway, I haven’t been out on Black Friday for years. Like you, I like staying in better. I prefer to chill at home, watching football with the family while my husband looks for deals online. But, whatever floats your boat, right?

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