Love it or hate it, Black Friday is here. The unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season brings hordes of early birds, deal seekers, or–more my style–people watchers. And as I stare at the crowds of overly caffeinated, sometimes short-tempered shoppers with their over-loaded carts, I can’t help but wonder: how in the world did all this insanity begin?
This year, Christmas comes a whopping 27 days after Thanksgiving. That’s 27 whole days in which consumers can plan, prepare, and shop for those on their list. So–why the push to bring customers in on that first day after Thanksgiving? Perhaps because the earlier the shopping start, the more money people will end up spending over the next few weeks as they realize they have more gifts to buy and–thankfully–more time in which to do it. In addition, many people are already enjoying the long holiday weekend–why not spend it in the store getting a leg up on their Christmas list? Still others tie the start of the holiday shopping season in with the appearance of Santa at the end of many Thanksgiving Day parades, ushering in the season with a “ho ho ho” before the turkey is even finished, reminding people that–ready or not–Christmas is on its way.
But, in a time marked by joy and giving and color and light, why the term “black”?
Although in history, the term “black” has usually been associated with tragedies or calamities (think the stock market crash of 1929, also known as “Black Tuesday” or the “Black Plague,” which killed millions of people in the 14th century), the first known occurrence of the term “Black Friday” used in conjunction with the day after Thanksgiving was used in the magazine Factory Management and Maintenance in the early 1950s to describe the time period after Thanksgiving when workers were notorious for calling in “sick”–leading to delays in productivity and profits. In the 1960s, the phrase was used by Philadelphia police to describe the chaos and traffic caused by after Thanksgiving shopping in their city.
It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that the term adopted its more modern meaning: “Black Friday” refers to the day most retailers would finally come “out of the red and into the black,” i.e. no longer operate at a deficit. Not surprisingly, stores make most of their money around the holidays, finally putting their profit margins for the year “in the black.” As the tradition grew, however, so too did the competition for business, leading to bigger and more outlandish deals and promotions as retailers seek to be heard and seen above the noise of the Black Friday frenzy. Recent years have even seen an uptick in stores opening on Thanksgiving Day (bleeding into what some now refer to as “Black Thursday”), although pushback against this trend is rising.
Sentiment against the day itself is rising as well. In recent years, the name “Black Friday” has begun to harken back to its ominous connotations, as violence, injuries, and even death have been reported during the rush to score the best deal. In addition, many point out the irony of setting aside a day to say thanks and count blessings, while rushing out the very next day (or even that evening) to immerse oneself in an extravagant display of commercialism and greed.
And its not just consumers. Some retailers are even taking a stand. REI made headlines when they announced they would not only close for Thanksgiving but for Black Friday as well, encouraging their customers to “opt outside” for the day instead. Patagonia, another retailer, chose to remain open but donated all Black Friday profits to charity.
Although “alternative Black Friday” is gaining momentum, spending remains strong, and Black Friday is no danger of disappearing from the cultural landscape any time soon. While some retailers are stepping back, others are pushing forward, offering “Black Friday” deals days and even weeks in advance, hoping to lure customers who may otherwise not participate in the one-day only chaos. Extravagant deals and limited time offers create a sense of urgency in a FOMO-centric society, and doorbusters drive traffic through the doors in an increasingly online-driven business.
In short, if you’re a “Black Friday” type of person, today the world is your oyster, and I wish you happy shopping. I, on the other hand, will be at home, sleeping off my turkey hangover in my comfiest pajamas…and maybe perusing deals on my iPad.