Why The Friday After Thanksgiving Is Known As Black Friday

Each year the holiday buying season officially kicks off on the Friday following Thanksgiving, when shoppers head out en masse in search of the lowest prices and best deals on gifts.

Many retailers open early and use hot items or “loss leaders” (selling items below cost to bring the crowds into their stores before they shop anywhere else.  The shopping frenzy continues throughout the day even though the prices on many items slide back up to normal.

Black Friday

So how did this crazy shopping day get dubbed Black Friday?

There are a few different theories but I’m in the camp that believes the roots of this phrase go back to the first reference of Black Friday during the 1869 financial panic in the stock market. The New York Times and other newspapers originally coined the phrase at that time.  The stock market reference is often erroneously linked to the stock market crash preceding the Great Depression but that time it occurred on a Tuesday in late 1929 not a Friday.

Black Friday continued to be used as a colloquial phrase in the mid-Atlantic states to describe hard times so it wasn’t surprising that the Philadelphia Police Department latched on to the phrase to describe the center city chaos on the day after Thanksgiving.  Bonnie Taylor-Black (American Dialect Society) found a mention of it being used in this context as far back as 1966:

JANUARY 1966 — “Black Friday” is the name, which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. “Black Friday” officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.

Others have said that it came about as part of a mid-1980s anti-consumerism backlash, when people took a pledge to stay home, rather than shop creating a spending “blackout” on that day.  I think they just franchised this phrase for their movement rather than this being the origin.

Black Friday at Toys R UsShoppers at Toys R Us on Black Friday (from msnbc.com)

By 1975, retailers were using “Black Friday” within the industry to describe the day since it was the one day they knew they would turn a profit.  For many retailers Q4 sales (Oct, Nov, Dec) can make the difference between what is considered a poor year and a profitable one.  For this reason you may also hear the media refer to Black Friday as the day when retailers have the opportunity to end their year in the black (an accounting term meaning they turn a profit).

In 2000 and 2001, I was the Director of e-Commerce for America Online (AOL) and remembering this term first being widely used online.  The visibility on the web coupled with ridiculously low prices and pre-dawn opening hours cemented the phenomena known as Black Friday in the hearts and minds of shoppers who now set their alarms extra early in order to take advantage of some amazing savings.

Black Friday Ads

A Few of Black Friday Ads From Years Past

Many retailers capitalize on this opportunity to makes sales by opening at 5am or earlier and some of the larger are now opening at midnight and remain open for 24 hours on Black Friday and until midnight the following Saturday.

An entire web based industry has sprung out of the Black Friday phenomenon.  There are websites devoted to providing money saving tips and sneak peaks at the best deals and Black Friday ads weeks before they are published in local newspapers.

As more and more holiday purchasing was done online the bricks and mortar Black Friday developed an online counterpart known as Cyber Monday.  According to Wikipedia Cyber Monday is a neologism invented in 2005 by the National Retail Federation’s division Shop.org.  This refers to the Monday immediately following Black Friday based on a clear consumer trend that retailers began to recognize in 2003 and 2004.  At the time, retailers noticed that many consumers, who were too busy to shop over the Thanksgiving weekend or did not find what they were looking for, shopped online that Monday from home or work to find bargains.

Now the big question.  Where will you be this Friday at 6am?  Tucked in your bed or out with a few bargain purchases already stashed in the trunk of your car?

Comments

  1. I really, really abhor this term, regardless of origin. It’s like your own birthday being re-dubbed “Make a Mortgage Payment Day” by your Obstetrician.

    Hence…
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Stop-Calling-the-Day-After-Thanksgiving-Black-Friday/141443615903360

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