Black Friday

Top U.S. Shopping Day Fades to Gray

Black Friday lede

For most of the last decade it’s been America’s biggest shopping day. That day is Black Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday and an emblem of opportunity, or excess, or both. Now contemporary shopping trends are dulling Black Friday’s mystique as retailers offer bargains for a whole weekend or more and even use the “Black Friday” label for promotions in other seasons as they struggle to keep a profitable tradition alive.

The Situation

In 2013, at least a dozen big U.S. retailers opened on Thanksgiving night for the first time, or opened earlier on Thanksgiving Day than ever before. In 2014, chains from Macy’s to Target to Old Navy opened stores even earlier, hoping to pull customers to the mall for doorbuster deals the minute they put down their forks. Home Depot proclaimed an April “Cyber Week” in 2015, stretching a ”Spring Black Friday” promotion introduced six years earlier. For merchants, expanding Black Friday is a competition to persuade customers to open wallets as early in the shopping season as possible, but it’s a hard sell. Even though 45 percent of consumers said they planned to shop on Thanksgiving in 2014, 70 percent said they considered Black Friday unimportant because deals are available all the time, in stores and especially online. Consumers meant it: Retail sales over the 2014 Thanksgiving weekend fell an estimated 11 percent.

Source: National Retail Federation
Source: National Retail Federation

The Background

Nobody is sure how Black Friday got its name. Some historians trace the term to the Philadelphia police, who were said to have coined it in 1961 to bellyache about the traffic. An urban myth claims the name marks the first day of profitability for retailers each year. Don’t believe it: November and December account for about 19 percent of retailers’ annual sales, so in most years companies are profitable well before the fourth Friday of November. The unofficial start to the holiday shopping season has been creeping earlier for several years. In 2012, many stores opened at midnight, and before that, early morning openings were used to lure customers seeking rock-bottom prices on items like televisions. The crowd scenes have been marred by stampedes, fights and at least one death. Online, sales have seen the same kind of slide forward. In 2005, retailers coined the term “Cyber Monday” to describe a surge in web purchases on the first work day after Thanksgiving by people who had spent the weekend browsing in stores. Now, increasing number of online shoppers, particularly those buying over their phones, are skipping the stores entirely. Other countries have traditions similar to Black Friday: Many retailers in British Commonwealth nations open at 5 a.m. or earlier for Boxing Day, right after Christmas, with deep discounts for waiting customers.

The Argument

Retailers say the crowds that still show up on Thanksgiving night prove they’re giving customers what they want despite complaints that they’re ruining Thanksgiving. Some stores say they have no choice if they want to stake a claim to shoppers’ wallets even as others, including Costco and Marshall’s, have started promoting their refusal to open on Thanksgiving to show they are family-friendly. Customers have more choice than ever over when — and how — to shop. They don’t have to line up at 2 a.m. to secure a great deal, and if they choose, they don’t even need to leave the house. The days of long lines, customer stampedes and overrun malls that characterized Black Friday’s time may be ending.

The Reference Shelf

  • Mental Floss magazine wrote a brief history of Black Friday.
  • Researchers at Eastern Illinois University studied consumer behavior among Black Friday shoppers.
  • Researchers at Winthrop University broke down the rituals and practices behind Black Friday shopping.
  • New York magazine explains why Black Friday “is carefully designed to make you behave like an idiot.”
  • A survey by Accent Marketing concludes that Black Friday is “meaningless to customers.”

(This QuickTake includes a corrected reference to the scale of the Black Friday spending chart.) 

First Published Nov. 25, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Lindsey Rupp in New York at lrupp2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net