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Black Friday is longer, and tamer, than ever

Black Friday crowds aren’t what they used to be. That doesn’t mean the holiday is going anywhere.

Shoppers are checking products and prices ahead of Black Friday, regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. 
NurPhoto/Getty Images

Black Friday is upon us. The shopping holiday, which was once relegated to the day after Thanksgiving, now takes up the better part of November, with retailers offering Black Friday deals earlier and earlier in an attempt to lure customers. The result? A longer Black Friday season, which is becoming less frenzied than in previous years.

Even as Black Friday crowds have declined in size, shopper turnout remains strong. This year, an estimated 116 million people will shop online or in stores on Friday alone, and 164 million people are expected to shop over the holiday weekend, according to data from the National Retail Federation. And as Black Friday has expanded beyond a single day, the rise of online shopping may have helped tone down some of the day’s wilder elements.

Where did Black Friday come from?

Black Friday’s origins have little to do with shopping, but the exact story of when and how “Black Friday” originated depends on whom you ask. The term’s US usage dates back to a 19th-century financial crisis — which did begin with a kind of shopping spree. In 1869, financiers Jay Gould and James Fisk bought up tons of gold in an attempt to artificially drive up its price and, presumably, sell at a profit. Instead, gold prices plunged, and on Friday, September 24, the stock market crashed.

At the turn of the 20th century, a few factors transformed Thanksgiving — and the day after, which still wasn’t known as Black Friday — into a more commercial affair. Eaton’s, a Canadian department store, had its first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1905. Macy’s followed suit in 1924, bringing the concept of the Thanksgiving Day parade to the US — and, according to the personal finance website the Balance, boosting department store shopping for the following day.

Anecdotal evidence mentioned on both the Balance and the History Channel website suggests that Black Friday took on yet another meaning in the 1950s, when business owners used the term to complain about employees who called in sick the day after Thanksgiving, affecting sales and revenue. But it’s more likely that the name of the event dates back to a term Philadelphia police used to describe suburban shoppers who descended on the city in the days after Thanksgiving.

Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina, told CNN Money that at the time, Philly promised big sales in November — not because of Thanksgiving, but because of the Army/Navy football game. “It was a double whammy,” said Taylor-Blake. “Traffic cops were required to work 12-hour shifts, no one could take off, and people would flood the sidewalks, parking lots, and streets. The cops had to deal with it and coined the term.”

In 1961, some retailers attempted to rebrand the day to “Big Friday,” because they worried that “Black Friday” would have negative connotations for shoppers. But the name stuck, giving rise to a new urban legend about its origins.

“It’s a misnomer, but 20, 30 years ago, people did view Black Friday as the day that retailers started to be ‘in the black’ after a year of not being in the black,” Ray Hartjen, a retail analytics expert at RetailNext, told me. “All the volume through the holiday season made them profitable retailers.”

Whatever its origins, Black Friday now carries a new set of connotations — many of which are negative and which, according to Kenneth Rogers, the associate dean of research at York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design and author of the paper “Black Friday: Crowdsourcing Communities of Risk,” are often rooted in classism.

The holiday, which once marked the beginning of the holiday shopping season (more on that later), is associated with consumerism, materialism, and, occasionally, a lack of family values. Plenty of retailers have been called out for opening their stores earlier and earlier, depriving workers of family time on Thanksgiving as a result. Shoppers who choose to chase deals instead of spending time with their families have also been vilified.

Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year. Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Black Friday crowds have gotten smaller in recent years, but that doesn’t mean the holiday is on the decline. It just means the way people get their holiday shopping done is changing. Black Friday is no longer a single day, nor is it a weekend — it’s becoming a shopping season in its own right.

The rise of Black November

Instead of slashing deals for Black Friday or Cyber Monday, Amazon now has a “Black Friday Deals Week,” with different markdowns each day. Rag & Bone’s 2018 Black Friday sale kicked off on Tuesday — a full 48 hours before Thanksgiving — and ends the following Monday. Best Buy has been emailing me every other day for a week, reminding me that “deals don’t wait” and advertising a slew of pre-Black Friday sales, including its “Beat the Rush” sale, which ended on November 17, and its “Early Access” sale, which ends on the 20th.

These pre-Black Friday and pre-pre-Black Friday sales are the result of years of competition between retailers, said Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Shopping Revolution. Kahn told me that Black Friday initially started at 5 am on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but “then you can see how it started creeping up earlier and earlier.”

Price is an easy thing for retailers to compete on, she said. “When someone is offering 50 percent discounts from 10 to 11 on Friday, you can offer 51 percent from 9 to 10 on Friday. That competitive response will cause the creeping behavior — it getting earlier and earlier — because you want [customers] to buy from you instead of the competition.”

Stores tried to attract customers not just with deals and doorbusters but by being open before their competitors. “Ten years ago, you had people camping out for two or three days in advance,” Hartjen told me. “Before the internet came around and changed the nature of shopping, brick-and-mortar — well, it was all brick-and-mortar back then — had to have these great sales to get people in the store. The more foot traffic, the better.”

This type of competition was “really problematic” for retailers, Hartjen said. “You have to have a lot of staff, you have to have a lot of inventory, and the operational costs are skyrocketing,” he said. But in recent years, e-commerce has made Black Friday easier — for both retailers and shoppers.

First there was Cyber Monday, which Kahn said took off because plenty of shoppers’ primary access to the internet used to be in their workplaces, not at their homes, so they could surreptitiously shop while at work. The competition-driven creeping effect turned Black Friday into a two-day shopping spree. Cyber Monday transformed it into a holiday shopping weekend. And more recently, the rise of year-round online shopping has seemingly transformed Black Friday from a weekend into a month-long state of mind.

With a little patience and a good wifi connection, I could get all my Black Friday shopping done today if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t even have to leave my apartment to do it. Last year, the National Retail Federation said that of the 174 million Americans who did their Black Friday shopping between Thanksgiving Day and Cyber Monday, 58 million of them exclusively shopped online. An additional 61 million shopped both online and in store.

“It’s no longer Black Friday,” retail analyst Marshal Cohen told the Boston Globe last year. “It’s Black November.”

Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Brian Field, the senior director of retail consulting practice at ShopperTrak, called the idea of Black November “unfounded.”

“When we review [in-store] holiday traffic data since 2011, it is all about Black Friday,” Field told me in an email. “The first few weeks of November traffic is typical and hasn’t changed much since we started tracking. You start to see a small ramp up beginning on the Sunday leading into the holiday, but the real peak is Black Friday, which consistently leads all other days in traffic through the end of the year, by a mile.”

According to Field, shoppers are experiencing shorter lines and smaller crowds on Black Friday because retailers have expanded their hours, not because of a drop in enthusiasm. Online may have disrupted Black Friday, he said, but not as much as has been reported. This year, the National Retail Federation expects weekend shopping to peak on Friday, with an estimated 116 million shoppers turning out that day alone.

It seems counterintuitive for people to deal with crowds and lines, albeit smaller ones than in previous years, when they can get deals at any point in November, but Black Friday shopping isn’t just about chasing sales — it’s become a tradition. Online shopping may have thinned the once-rampant Black Friday crowds, but Black Friday isn’t going anywhere yet.

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