It’s Turkey Day so we know the biggest shopping day in North America is right around the corner — or later tonight. It’s Black Friday. Historically, black anything nomenclature has always had dark connotations. The Black Death was the pandemic that killed anywhere between 30-60 percent of the European population. There’s Black Thursday, the series of bushfires that devastated Australia in 1851. There’s the other Black Thursday, the stock market crash of 1929 that signalled the beginning of what would be the Great Depression (plus Black Tuesday the following week). Plus all the other Black Fridays, including a massacre in Iran in 1978, a tornado in Canada in 1987 that killed 27 and destroyed 300 and another market crash in the U.S. in 1869.
So why Black Friday then? It’s a seemingly odd name for our favorite American pastime: buying shit we don’t need because it’s on sale.
One widely accepted explanation — and this is the one my mom gave me as a kid — is that this is the day retailers began marking their books in black in, which meant profits. It’s an accounting thing. Losses would be denoted in red. In a way it makes sense, but the reasoning is curiously positive given its ominous nature. Turns out, this alternative rebranding effort only popped up and caught on in the 80s and while the explanation is believable, it’s anecdotal at best.
Indeed the original meanings better fit its negative moniker. In the 50s, factory managers began referring to the friday after Thanksgiving as Black Friday, because as one industrial magazine noted, “so many workers called in sick,” it was “a disease second only to the bubonic plague.”
In the 60s, cops in Philadelphia began referring to the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday because of the traffic jams and jaywalkers caused by an influx of shoppers, amplified by the Army-Navy football game that took place at the time.
Put off by the names dark implications, officials and retailers even made a push to have the day rebranded as Big Friday. It didn’t pan out. By the 70s, newspapers and retailers in Philly had rallied around Black Friday to describe the kickoff of the holiday shopping season. But even as the namechange didn’t stick, a reframing of the situation did, and that’s when the accounting theory came into play. “I think it came from the media,” William Timmons of Strawbridge & Clothier told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1981. “It’s the employees, we’re the ones who call it Black Friday,” said Belle Stephens of Moorestown Mall. “We work extra hard. It’s a long hard day for the employees.”
FDR moved Thanksgiving for the sake of shopping.
The day after Thanksgiving has long been the day to shop, going as far back as the 19th century. It’s why the Thanksgiving parade in New York is called the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. So important was this day for retailers during the Great Depression, they pleaded to then President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to move Thanksgiving back a week. It would be the first time that the traditions of Thanksgiving were sacrificed for our national need to consume not stuffing but stuff. They called it Franksgiving.
Even though Black Friday is regularly referred to as the biggest day shopping day of the year, this too is a recent phenomenon. For most of the 90s, Black Friday ranked between 5th and 10th on the list of busiest shopping days, with the Saturday before Christmas owning the top spot. Since 2003, however, it’s been top dog, except in 2004 when it placed 2nd.
In the last decade or so, Black Friday has mutated into an unsightly beast. Part of it is the network effect. Shopping is inherently social. There are benefits to doing things that everyone else is. It’s nice when we all know the words. Beyond immediate need, the things we buy represent our status and are potentially a projection of our personality. And in terms of buying stuff we don’t need or can’t afford, there’s something comforting about the fact that everyone else is making the same mistake.
Last year, a record 226 million shoppers visited stores and websites during the four-day holiday weekend starting on Thanksgiving, up from 212 million last year, according to National Retail Federation. We also spent more money: The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 versus $365.34 in 2010.
More shoppers means longer lines, bigger mobs and more fighting over a limited number of half-price TV sets, Twilight Blu-rays and iPads discounted $4. While this sort of behavior may be baked into our genetic code, it’s clear the environment brings out the worst in us.
The other part is competition. In an effort to lure more shoppers and give them a wider window of opportunity, retailers have consistently pushed back the official start time. First to 4 a.m., then midnight. This year, Wal-mart will open its doors at 8 p.m., creeping steadily into the day we’re supposed to enjoy the company of family and friends and be grateful for all that we have. Instead we’re going to the mall.
This is fine if you have the choice between staying out or waiting in line in the cold to be one of the lucky first 300. Millions of Americans have to go to work with preparations for the big day starting as early as 24 hours in advance. There’s a push to tame the beast. Dozens of petitions have popped up on Change.org calling for retailers to push back times for the sake of Thanksgiving including one started by Target employee Casey St. Clair which is 170,000 supporters strong. Then there’s that Wal-Mart strike, the first on Black Friday ever.
Consumers may also be tiring of what is generally an unsavory experience.The National Retail Federation predicts 147 million shoppers this year (including offline and online), down 5 million from 2011 in a supposedly improving economy (although one data point isn’t exactly a trend). And increasingly, more people are shopping on their computers to avoid the hassle. Cyber Monday took $1.25 billion of the pie last year, the biggest online shopping day ever.
That still means that nearly half of the country is out there chasing the hype, because that’s all that Black Friday really amounts to in the end. It’s not a good barometer of the economy and it’s not a great day for bargain hunting. But we’ll let it kill Thanksgiving anyway. Maybe that’s what makes it most American of all. Not the blatant consumption but the allure of the impossible. That if you work hard enough, you too can own that big screen 3D television made by Panasonyviewsung for only $400. Then again, if that’s the embodiment of the American Dream, I’m moving to China.
Follow Alec on Twitter: @sfnuop