Black Friday mania is nearly upon us once again, but how did this notorious shopping day get its name and become such a cultural phenomenon?
The day immediately following Thanksgiving in the United States has become synonymous with rampant shopping and the moniker Black Friday. Indeed, it is now such a part of the media landscape and cultural calendar that it is hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.
What is Black Friday and History of Black Friday?
However, the establishment of Black Friday is certainly not lengthy by historical standards. The first known usage of the term ‘Black Friday’ came in the journal Factory Management and Maintenance back in 1951. The publication repeated the description the following year, it stuck, and so began a craze that has come to define the Thanksgiving season to some extent.
There is, though, a historical precedent for the use of the term. Traditionally, Black Friday is associated with more negative incidents related to the stock exchange. In Britain, Black Wednesday signifies the time when Britain was forced to drop out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism; a truly momentous, and indeed disastrous, day in British history. Extremely high interest rates immediately followed this event, and the impact on the population was massive for years to come.
Similarly, the expression of Black Friday has been associated with the attempts of James Fisk and Jay Gould to take control of the gold market in the New York Gold Exchange, all the way back in 1869. Yet over time the negative connotations of the black wording shifted in the case of Black Friday (although it must be said that not everyone relishes the rabid retail activity!).
With Black Friday having assumed an unusual cultural significance, many states in America now recognize it as a public holiday. Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all offer workers and extra day off from their usual travails in order to mark Black Friday, indicating that this has become more than merely an excuse for more shopping.
While Christmas still remains extremely important to the retail sector, it is interesting to note that Black Friday has now become the busiest day of the year. This first became the case back in 2005, and with the offers that many retailers provide for products during this critical period, this trend has accelerated in the last few years.
Despite the fact that the name Black Friday was originally coined in the 1950s, it is also believed that it was largely popularized in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. At this time, it was referred to by bus drivers and police, who used the moniker in order to describe the heavy traffic that would cause chaos in the streets of the Eastern city after Thanksgiving.
Nonetheless, although this may have been an accurate description at the time, businesses didn’t exactly welcome the negative connotations of this term, and thus requested a change in tack. The theory behind the name nowadays is that Black Friday is the day when retailers begin to achieve a profit for the fiscal year. Whether or not this has any basis in reality, it is certainly the case that the holiday has become hugely significant for retail outlets in particular.
However, the retail sector has also faced challenges in maintaining the rise and rise of Black Friday in recent years. In 2014, it was noted that spending on Black Friday declined from the previous year, by the pretty hefty proportion of 11 percent. Since then, retailers have begun to adopt a more nimble strategy, whereby promotions are spread out over the entire month of November and December, rather than being completely focused on Black Friday itself.
Elsewhere in the United States, there has been considerable debate over the retail nature of Black Friday and other Thanksgiving commemorations. It is notable that three states, Rhode Island, Maine, and Massachusetts, have banned public supermarkets, big box retailers and department stores from opening on Thanksgiving, due to what are often referred to as ‘blue laws’.
But this attitude to the holiday season has certainly not permeated throughout the rest of the United States, with shoppers expected to be out in force once more for Black Friday this year. While retailers are taking a more flexible approach to promotions over the key holiday period, there will nonetheless be a huge amount of bargains available.
Such is the clamor for these cheap retail goods, injuries and even deaths are not uncommon among the scrabbling hordes. There have been at least seven fatalities and 98 significant injuries reported throughout the United States over the last ten years, and it is becoming increasingly common for prospective shoppers to camp out over Thanksgiving in order to secure the most desired items.
Again, this does not always find favor with the authorities, due to the blocking of emergency lanes and general inconvenience caused, and one the city has already moved to ban the practice. Cuyahoga Falls in Ohio moved to prevent people camping outside Best Buy, and other cities have contemplated similar prohibition.
Black Friday around the world
Although there is a cultural basis for Black Friday in the United States, the vast potential income available to retailers has meant that many other nations have also embraced the concept. Over the last few years, it has become common for stores in Britain to run Black Friday promotions, and for the holiday to receive significant media coverage.
This undoubtedly underlines the cultural power of shopping in the 21st century, as Black Friday essentially makes absolutely no sense in Britain whatsoever! There is no Thanksgiving in the UK, Black Friday is not a public holiday, and therefore there is absolutely no basis for this very American event to be embraced. Indeed, a comment piece in the trade publication Retail Week described it as “simply an Americanism, which doesn’t translate very well”.
Nonetheless, with spending on Black Friday increasing by 12 percent in 2016 over the 2015 iteration of the event, it is clear that retailers are making a significant effort to market this concept to British people as well. Other countries have also embraced the term, particularly America’s North American neighbours Canada and Mexico, but retail offers have even spread as far afield as India, Pakistan and Germany.
As usual, retailers all over the United States will be opening early on Black Friday, with the aim of selling as much product as possible. The big boys such as Target and Walmart will be vying for the attention of consumers, with a vast array of deals available on every conceivable niche imaginable. There has also been a particular technology focus on Black Friday, with many retailers seeing it as the ideal time to pick up electronics bargains.
Black Friday has essentially come a long way in a short period of time, and is now surely cemented as a permanent fixture on the retail calendar. While many will feel embarrassed and uncomfortable at the frenzied scenes of people scrapping for bargains, the retail community will undoubtedly continue to rub its collective hands with glee.