The Origins of Black Friday: An Examination of the Annual Event

Shoppers in America and in several other countries around the world are very familiar with the shopping spree holiday known as Black Friday. It is a day of intense shopping and extremely deep discounts. It’s also a day with mounting controversy behind it as the holiday continues to demand more and more from employees in the retail industry.

Despite some negative aspects, the holiday continues to grow and shoppers continue to flock to stores as early as 6pm on Thanksgiving when technically the holiday doesn't start until the day after. Let’s examine the origins and history of this iconic shopping day and how it continues to be one of the most divisive days of the calendar year.

An Overview of the Holiday

Since the turn of the 21st century, the day after Thanksgiving has been referred to as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the United States. Most of the major retailers nationwide open extremely early to offer special “doorbuster” sales that only last for several hours. This has resulted in mass scale shopping sprees from millions of consumers each year.

The holiday isn’t publicly recognized, but several states offer “The Day After Thanksgiving” as a day off for state government employees instead of another government holiday. In addition, a number of other types of employees and students have both Thanksgiving and the following day off, in addition to the weekend which increases the number of shoppers.

Prior to 2005, it was named “The busiest shopping day of the year” but it wasn't until after that year that the statement was accurate. It was given that title long before it was true, but it was fitting given the annual excitement around the holiday. To this end, the holiday is typically preceded with massive advertisements around low stock of items and mass demand.

In 2014, the 4-day weekend yielded over $50.9 billion in sales, which was less than the previous year, but impressive numbers regardless. The origins of the name come from Philadelphia, where the name was used to describe the heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic that happened after Thanksgiving each year.

The term spread beyond the city of its origins after beginning in 1961. In 1975 it began to see more widespread usage. Later on the term received a secondary explanation based on the concept that retailers typically ran on a loss (in the red as they said) until the day after Thanksgiving when they finally turned a profit (in the black).

The Origins of the Term and a Brief History

The name of the holiday stretches back to the early days of the nineteenth century. In the United States it was associated with a financial crisis in 1869. In terms of shopping, the earliest use of the term in that regard was in a public relations newsletter from 1961. It was thought that the name could be changed to something more positive at the time like “Big Friday” but such attempts proved futile.

The color association was eventually replaced with an alternate one that painted the day in a less negative light. It began in the 1980s when a theory was suggested that retailers are unable to turn profits for the majority of the year. In the accounting industry, a loss is record using red ink, and a profit is recorded using black ink.

Given this theory, the day after Thanksgiving would be the time when retailers are able to record profits for the year. While this theory isn’t entirely true, it’s common for many retailers to make most of their earnings during the Christmas season of shopping.

The idea of starting the holiday shopping season the day after Thanksgiving is one that was spurred on by the practice of Santa’s appearance in annual Thanksgiving Day parades. This concept that Santa Claus had arrived reminded people that Christmas was just around the corner.

In addition, starting in the late 19th century, many of these parades were sponsored by department stores. The famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade comes to mind in addition to the Eaton’s holiday parade. These events would mark the beginning of major advertisements for the sponsoring stores.

A tradition formed that no stores would advertise Christmas or holiday specials until after the parades had ended. In 1939 president Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date for Thanksgiving up one week so stores would have a longer period of time to start their holiday shopping promotions. This led to immense anger from the public resulting in some people refusing to obey the change. The term “Franksgiving” was used for the changed date.

Controversies and Violence Surrounding the Holiday

While it’s true that there are a number of compelling sales and promotion on Black Friday and around the weekend, the increased hours and massive public turnouts have resulted in several controversies:

With more and more stores opening on the evening of the Thanksgiving holiday, the term has been dubbed “Gray Thursday.” In 2011 for example, Walmart opened its doors at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day for the first time ever. Competitor stores like Sears and Kmart were opening as early as 8 p.m.

The times have been creeping further and further into the Thursday prior. In 2013, Kmart opened at 6 p.m. and stayed open for 41 consecutive hours until 11 p.m. on Friday. Since the earlier 2000s there have also been a number of reports around violent outbreaks as a result of the crowds and promotions.

Some examples include:

U.S Shopping Practices and Variations of the Holiday in Other Countries

Numerous states have official public holidays for government employees listed as “The Day After Thanksgiving.” The reasons behind the popularity of this shopping holiday are varied. Because Thanksgiving is the last major holiday before Christmas, there is a strong urge among consumers to begin their gift shopping.

The inclusion of limited time promotions like doorbusters also encourages increased traffic to the stores after Thanksgiving. On top of this, the recent years have resulted in earlier opening times and longer hours. While these practices have resulted in controversies over opening on Thanksgiving Day, it has also increased the profits and sales that companies experience on this holiday.

Americans have enjoyed this shopping holiday for several years, and now other countries have begun taking cues and creating their own holiday shopping promotions similar to ones in America.

The massive success of this shopping holiday has been the inspiration for many other holiday shopping sprees and promotions in other countries around the world. Let’s take a look at other versions of this holiday:

  1. Canada

Many of the large cities around Lake Ontario have been known to result in cross-border shopping during the holidays. The strength of the Canadian dollar in conjunction with lower U.S. prices caused shoppers to make the trip into the States. Starting in 2008, retailers in Canada started running their own promotions on the same day to encourage the shoppers to stay within the border.

  1. Mexico

The American shopping holiday was the inspiration for a equally popular weekend of discounts in Mexico called El Buen Fin which means “the good weekend” in Spanish. On this weekend each year, stores stay open for extend hours and offer a number of promotions.

  1. India

With a growing market for e-commerce websites, India is seeing yearly shopping holidays in the vein of Cyber Monday and other similar holiday specials. Flipkart, Snapdeal, and Amazon are among the major companies pushing this holiday trend. The popularity of shopping holidays in India has been increasing steadily as Google Trends reports a rising search voume for related terms of almost 50% year over year.

  1. The United Kingdom

This country has been emulating similar holiday sales since 2003. Many large companies and retailers based out of the U.K have embraced this American trend with profitable results. Even so, the usual instances of violence still tend to occur, with police officers being called out to various locations to provide additional security.