The Real History of Black Friday

Black Friday, the day known to many as the official kickoff of the holiday shopping season, is here. Legend has it that Black Friday brings retailers out of the red (financial loss) and into the black (financial gain), hence the name Black Friday. In fact, it turns out that while the earnings made by businesses on Black Friday are substantial, profits have nothing to do with the name.

“Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year,” Sarah Pruitt of history.com explains. By the 1960s, the term describing the chaotic day had taken root. Two decades later, retailers throughout the United States claimed Black Friday as their own—after doing a little P.R. by spreading the far more cheerful legend of red deficits and black profits mentioned above.

Businesses today are just as eager to promote a joyful holiday shopping experience. Black Friday commercials often show calm, smiling shoppers while highlighting “unbelievable” deals. Despite this, the Philadelphia police department’s description of chaos is perhaps more accurate.

From fistfights to tramplings to shootings, the massive shopping day has caused its fair share of violence. In 2009, one year after the trampling death of a Wal-Mart employee on Black Friday, OSHA ultimately got involved and released new safety guidelines for managing crowds. Barricades for lines and additional staff became mandatory. OSHA also advised that retailers distribute numbered wristbands or tickets, which many retailers, including Wal-Mart, did.

Despite regulations, Black Friday violence still hasn’t been quelled. On the contrary, it has spread—in large part because it is no longer contained to just one day. In the early 2000s, most major retailers opened their doors at 6 a.m. Fast forward ten years, and many stores were now opening between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. for the shopping extravaganza. Then, in 2011, a dramatic shift came that changed Black Friday shopping for good.

“Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Macy’s, Kohl’s, and Target all announced they would start their sales even earlier than the usual crack-of-dawn Friday morning rush, with Wal-Mart, the earliest among them, launching their holiday sale at 10 p.m. Thursday,” explains U.S. News. This announcement caused a significant amount of push-back. Hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions to stop Black Friday from seeping into Thanksgiving Day, citing retail workers’ rights to be with their families on the national holiday. These petitions continue today, to no avail, as Black Friday reaches farther into Thanksgiving and beyond.

According to Christopher Newman, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Mississippi, “There’s really no such thing [as Black Friday] anymore. Most Black Friday sales begin on Thanksgiving Day, and most pre-Black Friday sales happen throughout November. Toys R Us kicked off its early sale with ‘hot deals’ on October 26, and Amazon opened its Black Friday deals store on November 1.”

Retailers compete with one another to be the first ones to offer great deals. In the process, Black Friday sales have taken a hit. “Since 2014, the Saturday before Christmas, known as ‘Super Saturday,’ has surpassed Black Friday in sales,” USA Today reports. While consumers are expected to spend more this year than last, nearly a quarter fewer people are planning to shop on Black Friday compared to two years ago. What does this mean for Black Friday?

With more deals now offered throughout the month, it’s likely that Black Friday will continue to lose its special appeal. Thanksgiving is already on track to take its place, with some stores opening as early as 5 pm on Thanksgiving Day this year. At this rate, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine a time when stores remain open for the entirety of the holiday. That might be a bargain for consumers, but it’s a shame for those who think Thanksgiving should be about gratitude, not shopping.

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