Every year, millions of people risk their lives to take part in Black Friday – one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
This sounds dramatic but every year there are reports of deaths and injuries across the country as people rush to get their hands on a new TV. The chances are you’ve taken part in the holiday – even if you don’t leave your living room. In 2016, 154 million consumers shopped either online or in store over Thanksgiving weekend, and that number is only set to grow this year.
The most popular day continues to be Black Friday – with Cyber Monday coming in a close second. How did these days start and why are they so ingrained in our culture? We dive a little deeper into the dangerous and lucrative holiday that kicks off our holiday season.
History of Black Friday
The best way to dissect our present (no pun intended) is to examine our past and the history it offers. Gift-giving over the holiday season didn’t really start into well into the 20th century and the consumer culture evolved into something we understand and recognize today.
Before stores and corporations encouraged us to buy a gift for our friends and families, we didn’t really do it. Usually, holidays would pass with nothing more than a postcard or maybe a phone call.
Isn’t that nice?
Fast forward a few years and things really started getting big with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. The huge event is watched by millions of people and used to mark the official start of the Thanksgiving festivities.
This is just one of the many parades that occur over the country in smaller cities and towns around the countries – and retailers wanted in on the action. They realized that if they joined forces they could work together and reach an audience of millions.
Retailers and shops realized that they could partner with the parades and slap their logo on the floats as a way to promote their brand leading up to the holiday season. It was a win-win for everyone: the parade was financed and the corporations got exposure.
Over time, this parade marked the unofficial start of the holiday season and suddenly consumers were being advertised to left, right, and center. Suddenly, people became aware of all the newest products and services.
Fixing The Calendar
It was Abraham Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. From 1863, the proclamation was made and the tradition was observed until 1939.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the power of executive order to move Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of the month instead. Congress passed the legislation and the change was made in 1941. But why? It turns out the move was to accommodate a powerful coalition of retailers and businesses.
A Legal Partnership
In the 1930s and 1940s, it was becoming known that the holiday period started on Thanksgiving and ended with Christmas. If it fell on one of the last days of the month, then there was less time for people to buy gifts.
It was pitched to the president as an egalitarian cause – one that would boost the US economy after a difficult recession just a few years earlier. From then, Thanksgiving was moved and ‘Black Friday’ marked the official start of the holiday season.
Who Named It?
Black Friday doesn’t sound very exciting or festive. The term obviously predates e-commerce, and according to The History Channel, has nothing to do with shopping at all. The term can be traced back to 1869 when two oligarchs literally planned to take over the American gold market. At the time, it was the basis of the US dollar and helped it set its value.
When the plan was exposed on Friday, September 24, it crashed the stock market and the day became known as ‘Black Friday’. There are other rumors that state it’s named after consumers who push their financials ‘into the black’ – but there is no evidence to support this.
The Real Reason
It wasn’t until the 1950s when the name actually started to resemble what we know today. At the time, Philadelphia was rampant with mobs, football teams, army officers, and college kids who would swarm home for the holidays. On the day before an annual Saturday football game, thousands of people would march down the streets and stock up on food and drink for the big game.
This caused shopkeepers to nickname the day ‘Black Friday’ due to the increased danger and effort needed to maintain peace. Even though it wasn’t culturally sensitive at the time, the name stuck and spread across the country!
Change Over The Years
Black Friday has changed over the years to reflect the cultural and socioeconomic shifts experienced in American society. At the time it was pushed back by FDR, shopping was pretty normal: people visited brick-and-mortar stores in the city centers to purchase the items that were available at the particular location.
From a logistical point of view, it just made practical sense for families to travel into town the day after they had already reunited for Thanksgiving the day before.
Trying To Entice
We all know about the Turkey sleepiness that can occur after eating too much during our Thanksgiving meals. Retailers knew that it would be hard to get families off the sofa or away from their TVs the day after a big day of eating or drinking.
So they starting enticing potential customers with special deals or promotions to get families to visit the store. Knowing that stores had to keep up or risk falling behind, they all started to copy each other.
A Changing Landscape
Over time, there became more avenues available to reach potential customers. The expansion of the internet also offered people to buy their items online and not need to leave the house and risk, you know, getting killed.
This became more and more attractive to people over time as it allowed families to stay together and stay lazy. Also, the incredible growth of large stores like Bestbuy and Walmart allowed people to walk around and view the products they wanted to buy ahead of time – making it easier to order on the day.
Around The World
With globalization and the increased use of the internet, the culture of Black Friday has traveled around the world. Regardless of religious affiliation, there are many countries that celebrate a secular aspect of Black Friday and its lucrative opportunities.
All cultures that celebrate a holiday at the end of the year invariably involve gift-giving and, hey, a discount is a discount! Thanksgiving remains an American holiday, so for most people, Black Friday is just another Friday that offers deals for one day before the holiday season and other festivals.
The United Kingdom
America’s older cousin and lifelong friend also has its own version of Black Friday. It originally referred to the Friday before Christmas Day and marked the symbolic start of the Christmas period. True to British tradition, it was a heavy drinking day and night that would often strain public health and safety resources.
By the 2010s, US companies jumped across the ocean and used social media and the internet to appeal to foreign audiences – starting with Britain. In a few short years, it has become its busiest shopping day generating more than £2 billion.
Due to a strengthening Canadian dollar in the 2000s and 2010s, Canadians have started joining in on the American holiday and purchasing the items that are on sale in local stores.
However, this was more of a preventative measure since the Canadian government wanted to keep its economy strong without sending its money south of the border. Today, it is a popular holiday in its own right and does not rely on American corporations.
In some ways, Black Friday has never been so relevant. Each year it generates more money for local economies and is a symbolic start to the Christmas period that lasts an additional three weeks. The online world is causing a few lines to be blurred: some Black Friday sales start on the Thursday, and sometimes even Wednesday, beforehand.
Steps are even being made to celebrate ‘Black Friday Week’ which is the entire week before the actual day. Still, the day is an important time in American culture and global economies.
With the increase in online shopping, recent years have witnessed the birth of a brand new addition to the weekend in the form of Cyber Monday. It takes place on the first day of the week after Thanksgiving weekend and places an emphasis on online shopping.
It was created in the 2010s by marketing companies to encourage people to keep shopping over the weekend and avoid the chaos of visiting brick-and-mortar stores. Deals usually start to be promoted after Halloween, at the very start of November.
Both Black Friday and Cyber Monday have attracted a backlash against consumerism and America’s relationship with products and services. Bad press such as the occasional death and pushing credit cards back into debt has given birth to the Buy Nothing Day movement.
Using the hashtag #BuyNothingDay, users promote staying home the day after Thanksgiving by staying home ‘with a good book or organizing a free concert’. The protest day isn’t supposed to tackle Black Friday head-on, but raise awareness of gross spending and commercialism that’s promoted.
Should Stores Even Be Open?
With more emphasis being placed each year on the online alternative methods, people have started to question if and when it will be relevant for stores to stay open. For decades, there was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ – retailers will stay closed if others do.
Thanksgiving and its following weekend should be a time for families to get together and shopkeepers deserve that time, too. Stores started opening on Thanksgiving in 2011 to get a one-up on their competitors – and all it takes is one business to start before the rest follow.
Black Friday has taken many forms since it starting taking its shape in the 1930s. With the advancement of the internet and social media, it has grown to represent the peak of American consumerism and commercialism.
With additions like Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday, and more, it no longer holds a monopoly over the Christmas period. Either way, the weekend has solidified its place as America’s favorite weekend to shop for the holidays. What will you be buying?