As I sit staring out from my temporary living-room at the still blue gulf and sun-drenched sky, I can’t help but be incredibly thankful for many things, including having a job that allows me the income to rent a beach house for the week as well as the right combination of family and friends to fill it and share it with. I am also thankful I have the perspective to appreciate the great bounty life has given me on many fronts.
One distinct fact I am particularly appreciative of today: that I am NOT anywhere near a mall, Wal-Mart, department store or otherwise frenzied commercial activity. Somehow, American cultural tradition has managed to turn our annual celebration of being thankful for what we have into a subsequent immediate race to consume more. But WHY?
We ought to remember that capitalism and consumption are the backbone of what makes our country “work” (in theory). Black friday as an annual tradition began as a way to ensure that our country continued to do so by bolstering the retail industry as we got closer to the end of the year.
How did Black Friday became such a big shopping day?
It’s hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail behemoth, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially started.
In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn’t start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.
So retailers were always hoping for an early Thanksgiving?
You bet. They weren’t just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn’t begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.
Brilliant! How did that work out?
Not so well. Roosevelt didn’t make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its “real” date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as “Franksgiving.” State governments didn’t know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.
By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.
Why call it Black Friday?
If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they’ll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day’s huge receipts as their opportunity to “get in the black” and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term “Black Friday” are a bit less rosy, though.
According to researchers, the name “Black Friday” dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that’s played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city’s streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as “Black Friday” to reflect how irritating it was.
So where did the whole “get in the black” story originate?
Apparently storeowners didn’t love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.
Do retailers really need Black Friday to turn an annual profit?
Major retailers don’t; they’re generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn’t be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.
Is Black Friday really the biggest shopping day of the year?
It’s certainly the day of the year in which you’re most likely to be punched while grabbing for the latest Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top six or seven days of the year for stores, but it’s the days immediately before Christmas when procrastinators finally get shopping that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.
Snopes’ data shows the ten-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year’s busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.
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- After Thanksgiving: Black Friday (parentingwithallthepieces.typepad.com)
- Thanksgiving Was Originally Scheduled So Stores Would Have More Time For Holiday Sales (businessinsider.com)
- Black Friday kicks off the holiday shopping season (cnsnews.com)
- AP PHOTOS: Ready, Set, Shop! Black Friday Begins (abcnews.go.com)
- Will Black Friday on Thanksgiving night become the new normal? (miamiherald.com)
- Black Friday Craziness Isn’t Adding Up (forbes.com)
- Why So Many People Absolutely Despise Black Friday (businessinsider.com)
- Wal-Mart Faces a New Round of Historic Strikes… But Why Now? (religiondispatches.org)