Forget Thanksgiving turkey, fellowship, and football; for a lot of shoppers, Black Friday is the week’s truly notable holiday. The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year, but where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they’ll give you some good talking points as you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m. on Friday.
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.
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.
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. [Image credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
Again, not necessarily. According to a 2007 Time story, even if Black Friday goes swimmingly for retailers, it doesn’t really tell analysts much about how the holiday season will look. The National Retail Federation told the magazine that since the bulk of holiday shopping still occurs in the week leading up to Christmas, those days are far more important for retailers’ bottom lines than Black Friday is. That week coupled with the steep discounts most retailers start offering on the day after Christmas end up determining how well the holiday season goes for retailers.
It’s obviously a bit tough for online retailers to cash in on the retail bonanza that their brick-and-mortar counterparts enjoy on Black Friday; you can’t really have a doorbuster sale when you don’t have any doors to bust. In 2005, though, Shop.org, the online arm of the National Retail Federation, started promoting the Monday immediately following Black Friday as “Cyber Monday,” Black Friday’s tech-savvy cousin for online retailers.
Like Black Friday, Cyber Monday probably isn’t quite the e-commerce boom that you’d expect. According to Snopes, the first few years of Cyber Monday looked a lot like Black Friday. Sales were certainly higher than normal, but the biggest e-commerce days were still usually a couple of weeks before Christmas. Basically, online shopping’s big days are governed by the same keep-putting-it-off impulse that shapes traditional retail’s best revenue days, only the online jackpots come a little earlier as procrastinators have to allow for shipping time.
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