Throughout history there have been many “black” days:

  • Black Monday, 1987: the largest drop in the Dow up to that point (somehow Dow drop keep setting new records)
  • Black Tuesday, 1929: the big Dow drop that presaged the Great Depression
  • Black Wednesday, 1992: The U.K. withdrawing the pound from Euro (nice to know the USA doesn’t have the monopoly on the “black” week!)

There are so many Black “other days” it’s impossible to pin the moniker on any single event. However, the most cursory glance at all the “black” days shows a common thread: disasters of some sort, from financial market crashes to wildfires, Raiders wins and even the collapse of the Denver airport guidance system in 1998.

Black Friday is different, though. It refers to a day that started as a happy day, the day after Thanksgiving, that lovely holiday unique to America (and arguably its most important holiday). Black Friday is about that quintessential American pastime: shopping.

Now, how can that be so bad as to earn it a “black” day?

Origin of Black Friday

“Only in America” (many people say) do you find the idea of setting aside a specific day for nothing else but shopping. Accounts differs as to how the tradition of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving came to be. Most seem to agree that the tradition of starting off the season of shopping for Christmas gifts started in the early 1900’s. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, which started in 1924, is often credited as the origin of the uniquely America tradition of designating a day as a shopping day. However, we’d have to question that, because the parade was on Thanksgiving Day, when all stores were closed. (Yep, those were the days.) A more plausible explanation might be the informal agreement among retailers to not start advertising for holiday shopping until the day after Thanksgiving. The newspapers, of course, just loved that: they can give their journalists the day off to be with their families, and fill the paper with scads and scads of holiday ads.

But what probably accounted for the tradition of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving was the increasing practice of employers to give their workers the Friday after Thanksgiving off. That’s when human nature took over. Most of us have fairly set ways to spend our Saturdays and Sundays. But what do you do on a “gift” Friday? Especially a Friday when you’re recovering from an overdose of the three F’s: food, family and football? The weather outside is not quite frightful (yet) but isn’t nice enough for a picnic any more, either. Over a late breakfast (despite the food overload experienced the day before, we gotta eat again) everyone dives into the newspapers. (Which, as we noted, were stuffed with ads.)

So there you are, comfortably stuffed (again) with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Predicting the rest of the story doesn’t take rocket science: with more affluence, increasing automobile ownership and the rise of the mall, the day after Thanksgiving became the perfect day for holiday shopping and decorating.

The Black Friday Name

And so it was that shopping on the day after Thanksgiving became more and more popular in the years of growing post-WWII affluence. Most retail stores were still downtown back then, and the growing crowds added great pressure to cities’ increasingly burdened downtown streets and infrastructure. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that Philadelphia is where Black Friday got its name — after all, it is the only city famous for booing Santa Claus. Their city workers felt the pressure (as other cities) but they were the ones willing to stick a “black” name to the day everyone else enjoyed.

As we know, the Black Friday name stuck. (Fortunately, the practice of booing Santa didn’t.)

Lest we be hard on the fine folks from Philly, it had to be a nightmare dealing with the increasing crush of humanity. When you have a big event like a football game, you have to deal with big crowds. But that’s different: it’s a discrete event in a single location, with infrastructure set up to handle the sudden large flow of people when the game is over. That crush usually lasts for no more than about an hour, and everybody is headed in the same basic direction. Aimless shoppers, who come and go in random patterns for a whole day, had to be a nightmare to deal with in cities not set up for sudden spikes in traffic.

The Day It Changed

Somewhere along the way, and nobody knows exactly when, shopping on Black Friday metamorphosed from a more leisurely post-turkey pastime to a more intense and aggressive exercise. Back in the early days, retailers could draw shoppers by simply announcing a wonderful cornucopia of newly invented goodies. As retail competition grew, though, stores had to make their offerings more and more compelling to draw shoppers to their stores. And so the Black Friday sales were born. They may have worked in the beginning, but nothing is easier for a store owner to do than match the sale prices of competitors. Again, the story is predictable. Just like the arms race of the era after World War II, retailers embarked on a Black Friday sale/discounting race.

In days gone past, Sears Roebuck was the world’s largest retailer, built on offering variety and quality. In time, though, the nation became more bottom-line oriented and Walmart overtook it by focusing on discounts. No surprise, then, that it’s Walmart who set the standard for the terms of Black Friday sales: deep discounts, valid for just a few hours.

Until 2008, the first full year of the Great Recession. That’s the year one of their temporary maintenance workers got trampled to death in New York. You remember how it happened: Shoppers were so hell-bent on getting those discounts (“limited to quantities on hand”) that they refused to even step aside to allow helpers to get to the hapless victim. The nation was shocked at what it had become, because many asked themselves: What would I have done?

And so it is that Walmart, again, is taking the lead to move us away from that (now scary) tradition of celebrating the day after Thanksgiving by trampling each other to death in pursuit of a few pennies in savings. The arms race moved to opening earlier and earlier to avoid those deadly crushes, until opening hours backed into Thanksgiving Day itself. And now Walmart has moved its Black Friday discounts to a week before Thanksgiving. Other retailers, unwilling to be left behind in this new arms race, have decided to follow suit.

The End of Black Friday?

That move to commence Black Friday deals way before Black Friday itself has raised the question in many quarters: Are we seeing the end of Black Friday as we know it? In a recent article, Experian Marketing Services explored the possibility in depth, and that has been taken up by Time magazine and other mainstream media outlets. More consumers are looking for deals earlier, and savvy retailers like Amazon and Walmart are responding quickly to catch the early worms, forcing other retailers to follow their lead.

Indeed, it seems that Black Friday, as we know it, will eventually go the way of the hula hoop and 8-track. As the L.A. Times points out in this article, social change rarely happens overnight. But it does seem inevitable.

Main reason: The internet, not just as a retail channel, is now the place to get information on prices at brick and mortar stores. Websites like The Black Friday have sprung up to allow consumers to search out the best deals ahead of time, and that has put even more of a premium on moving the start date of awesome deals up, just to stay ahead of the competition (who, by the way, also scans these sites).

What will you do now the day after Thanksgiving? Well, that’s easy: now you have time to give Grant a call to get that year-end coverage review out of the way! 🙂


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