History of Black Friday

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Many consider Thanksgiving to be the unofficial start of the holiday season. However, the following day, now known as Black Friday, has come to be regarded by many shoppers as the official kick-off. Retailers extend their hours and offer their best deals of the year on that day.

The most avid shoppers treat Black Friday shopping as a contact sport – arriving at stores before opening and planning their day to ensure they take advantage of the most significant savings.

The Beginning of the term

While the term “Black Friday” has been used to indicate the day after Thanksgiving since 1950s, the meaning has changed over the years. As it was embraced by different groups, they adopted the term for different reasons. Even in the 19th Century, long before the label “Black Friday” was coined, shoppers would use the day after Thanksgiving to begin their Christmas and holiday shopping. Many took advantage of a day off from work to brave the crowds to shop the low pricing and high inventories.

Upswings in retail sales on the day after Thanksgiving were noted in the late 19th Century after President Lincoln declared that the holiday would henceforth be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. Some, though not all, employers decided to grant an additional day of rest to allow for a four-day break.

However, some individuals who were not given the day off would choose to miss work. Having an extra day of leisure and an opportunity to make headway on holiday shopping was appealing to many workers. Rampant absenteeism led many employers to call the day “Black Friday.”

Black Friday becomes Black Friday

quote block saying "only in the 1980s did retailers begin to use the words "black friday" in a positive lightThough the term “Black Friday” became a cynical reference for economists, disgruntled bosses, and traffic-jammed drivers, the earliest direct reference to the shopping phenomenon was in a 1951 article in “Factory Management and Maintenance” according to a November 2015 mention in The Atlantic. The term became a lasting nickname for that particular day and transformed from a negative to a positive economic force as shopping increased.

Only in the 1980s did retailers begin to use the term “Black Friday” in a fully positive light. For some, name signified becoming profitable, or “in the black,” for the first time all year. Because of this, retailers began to aggressively market the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush and offer more favorable deals to attract more holiday shoppers.

How the Shopping Season Affected the Celebration of Thanksgiving

Until the 1940s, Thanksgiving followed President Lincoln’s original executive order and celebrated the holiday on the last Thursday of November. However, during some years, notably when the month ended on Thursday, retailers complained that the “shopping season” was too short. As a result, in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt, and later the United States Congress, formally established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of the month rather than the last Thursday. The move guaranteed more shopping days before Christmas. Roosevelt’s decision was intended to add fuel to an economy that had recently suffered through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Black Friday in the 21st Century

With nearly every retailer offering significant deals, consumer demand has often grown beyond the inventory available. Additionally, because of limited “doorbuster” deals, shoppers arrive at stores as early as possible to make sure products are not gone before they can buy them. Some people camp in front of stores on Thursday night, after finishing their Thanksgiving feasts. In some cases, shoppers arrived days or even weeks before the main event.

In response to the growing demand, many retailers extended their Black Friday hours. Some major stores began to open as early as 5:00 am to accommodate the massive rush of customers.

More recently, some stores started opening on the evening of Thanksgiving Day. In 2011, major retailers such as Target, Kohls, Macy’s, and others announced that they would open at midnight Thursday night. WalMart countered by announcing they would open at 10 pm on Thanksgiving evening. Other retailers opened their doors to shoppers in the late afternoon or early evening on Thanksgiving Day, staying open all night and through the end of the day on Friday. Controversy arose as the strategy deprived workers of the opportunity to spend time with their families.

Additionally, some retailers are finding that the extra hours may not be profitable. The cost of operations is not being offset by the additional sales acquired. Also, inventory replenishment during these few days can be very difficult. As a result, even if the demand is there, the product may not be. Put together, this can make Black Friday less appealing for retailers and consumers alike.

The Internet’s Impact on Black Friday

Technology and the Internet have brought significant changes to how consumers shop at any time of the year. The impact of online shopping is being felt throughout the retail industry. Many retailers have seen reductions in year-to-year in-store sales as a result of the growing internet presence.


Online sales on Cyber Monday, the Monday following Thanksgiving, have grown each year. In 2016, Cyber Monday generated an estimated $3.45 billion in sales – an increase of 12.1% over online sales for Cyber Monday in 2015.

Moreover, a comparison of in-store sales on Black Friday weekend indicates a trend of diminishing sales:
• 2012: 147 million people spent $59.1 billion
• 2013: 140.3 million people spent $ 57.4 billion
• 2014: 133.7 million people spent $ 50.9 billion
• 2015: 102 million shoppers spent $30.5 billion

Is Black Friday Doomed?

With the convenience of shopping online from home, trends seem to indicate that Cyber Monday could eventually pass Black Friday in total sales.

Perhaps the thrill of strategically planning and executing Black Friday shopping will keep consumers interested in continuing this now long-standing tradition of brick-and-mortar deal seeking. However, the convenience of shopping from home and the influence of the technologically savvy Millennium Generation could continue to erode Black Friday sales.

Some retailers find the arrival of Cyber Monday as an opportunity for incremental sales to supplement those of Black Friday. While more shoppers prefer to search quietly for online deals rather than braving the streets a growing percentage of retailers’ sales will occur on Monday.

Shopping online for the best deals as the holiday season kicks off does not generate the same drama as racing through one’s favorite stores to pass the next person to snag the last marked-down television on the shelf. However, given the upward trends of online shopping and the higher-than-predicted increases in Cyber Monday sales, perhaps a shift is coming in the way holiday shopping will occur in the coming years.