History and Origin of Black Friday: What Does the Name Mean?
What Is Black Friday?
Black Friday, as the day is known, is an unofficial holiday in the U.S.; it's the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is historically the first shopping day of the Christmas season.
How Did It Start?
In the late 19th and early 20th century, certain large department stores, notably Macy's, began holding Thanksgiving parades on the Friday after Thanksgiving. It gave the store an ideal opportunity to market their Christmas wares and was the opening of a very important period each year: the Christmas shopping season.
But how did the day come to be called Black Friday, and how has it changed over the years?
A Short History of Black Friday
Black Friday started out as pure commercialism even without the name. As time went on, that single day—heralding the start of the largest shopping period of the year—grew to the point that many companies make a large percentage of their income, if not all of it, in just one month.
It is extremely important to those companies that the season be successful, and they will promote anything that will help in that regard. It was at the request of merchants that FDR moved Thanksgiving up one week in 1939 to give an additional week to the season.
The Origins of the Name
In the late 1950s, factory management is said to have commented that the day gave rise to a disease causing absent employees—a disease only exceeded by the Black Death.
While that all too plausible tale cannot be documented, what can and was documented was a publication in Philadelphia that reported the police had come to call the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" in reference to the extreme traffic, both auto and pedestrian, that was causing them no end of trouble. Thus, the name was coined after the very crowds that make Black Friday such a success for merchants.
The connotation, however, that Black Friday was Trouble with a capital T was cause for concern for the merchants profiting from it. In the 1980s, they began to circulate the story that the name came about because it was the first day of the year that most businesses were "in the black"—meaning the first profit of the year. This has almost no truth to it, as most companies earn a profit each quarter as seen in their SEC filings, but it made a good story to counteract the negativism of large crowds causing trouble.
What Time Black Friday Begins
Over the years, Black Friday has started earlier and earlier. At first, the sales usually started before the end of the parade as that's where people were informed of them, but the news now comes much earlier, and stores are opening at 5AM, 4AM, and even midnight. In 2010, Toys 'R' Us began Black Friday sales at 10PM Thanksgiving Day. Many large retailers now open Thursday night at midnight for Black Friday.
The reason for Black Friday, then, is to start off the Christmas shopping season with a bang. As Christmas is the largest such profit period, eclipsing even second place Halloween, this makes perfect sense to retailers. Loss leaders—items sold at a loss in the hopes that customers will buy additional items at full retail—are common, and discounts of as much as 80% or even more are not unheard of. It is, at its very roots, a day of consumerism and commercialism.
Black Friday Really Works!
Although the common belief is that Black Friday is the most successful sales day of the year, it was not always so. Prior to 2001, Black Friday came in between fifth and tenth place, with the Saturday before Christmas taking top honors as procrastinators finally opened their checkbooks.
In 2003, though, Black Friday came in at number one and has done so every year since (with the exception of 2004, where it took second).
Black Friday Violence
This semi-holiday has seen its share of violence, too. The first Black Friday-related death occurred in 2008 as a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by crowds that broke down the door to the store just before opening time. Unwilling to stop ("I've been waiting in the cold too long already"), the crowd repeatedly trampled the employee and even the rescue personnel trying to save his life.
In 2010, A Toys 'R' Us customer was arrested for threatening to shoot other people waiting in line. Another man was arrested with a handgun, two knives, and a pepper spray grenade. In Buffalo, a man was trampled when the doors opened at a Target store, reminiscent of the scene at the Wal-Mart 2 years earlier.
2011 saw more of the same; one woman used pepper spray, injuring at least 20 other shoppers, "in an effort to gain an advantage" towards getting a low-priced Xbox. People have been shot and stabbed at these free-for-alls in the past, and although stores are taking ever-increasing safety measures, the violence hasn't stopped.
This could end up being the most important reason for the name of "Black Friday": the insane level of violence that mobs produce during a simple sale. People in the crush of the mob just seem to lose all common sense—there is absolutely no excuse for this kind of violence just because of a sale.
What about you, the reader?
Do you shop on Black Friday?
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Dan Harmon