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A Brief History of "Black Friday"

Do you know how Black Friday came about and how this ubiquitous holiday shopping extravaganza got its name? We explain the convoluted origins of Black Friday and its significant influence on the world today. In pre-21st century history, the term "Black Friday" was usually used to label usually disastrous events that just happened to occur on a Friday. Nowadays, though, Black Friday has a more positive connotation, as it is the one day when consumers can find the best deals on just about any product, online and in stores.

For both retailers and shoppers, Black Friday is the official start of the holiday shopping season. In years past, it was often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year (although sales events like Amazon Prime Day are starting to rival it in popularity).

Regardless of which sale event you think is the biggest and most popular, Black Friday has certainly been around the longest—with its origins going back as early as September 24, 1869, in reference to the financial crisis resulting from the crash of the U.S. gold market according to the History Channel.

Meanwhile, the term's association with the Thanksgiving holiday happened several decades later when retailers then reinvented the "Black Friday" label to reflect how accountants used different color ink — red for negative earnings and black for positive earnings — to denote a company's profitability. Stores tend to be "in the red" for the entire year, which indicates poor sales. The day after Thanksgiving, however, retailers would finally be "in the black" after the influx of shoppers spent their money on discounted goods. Black Friday, thus, became the day when stores finally turned a profit.

On the other hand, according to Britannica use of the phrase "Black Friday" in relation to a widespread sales event may have originated in the early 1960s when Philadelphia police officers reportedly used it to describe "the chaos that resulted when large numbers of suburban tourists came into the city to begin their holiday shopping." This was due to stores around the city promoting sales and attracting the influx of tourists ahead of the traditional Army-Navy college football game that took place on the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day.

The idea of post-Thanksgiving store sales began to catch on around the rest of the United States by the late 1980s, with retailers beginning to market around it. Specifically, the event became further became associated with the original idea that stores operate at a loss (or are "in the red") throughout the year, but are able to earn a profit (or, go "into the black") on the day after Thanksgiving, as it is the time period when shoppers are most likely to spend money on gifts.

Another theory about Black Friday is that, in the past, most stores adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, savvy shoppers who were aware of the promotions would tend to line up before the stores open and become the first "doorbusters" to grab great deals.

How Did Thanksgiving Become a Retail Holiday?

So how did Thanksgiving weekend become the United States' biggest consumer holiday in the first place? Why not Easter, 4th of July, or Labor Day? In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season didn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

Although many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date (while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving"), Congress made the new Thanksgiving holiday date official in 1941 by passing a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

Is Black Friday Still the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year?

While consumer events such as Amazon Prime Day and Cyber Monday are catching up as other popular dates to shop for great deals, Black Friday still remains that one day of the year where you can expect basically all major retailers—from Amazon, Target, Walmart, Macy's, Best Buy, Kohl's, and others—to release discounts on many top-rated items. While there are sales throughout the year, Black Friday effectively functions like the Super Bowl of savings, and you can expect to find markdowns at almost every brick-and-mortar or e-commerce store. Given the competition, many businesses now host early Black Friday sales, dropping some of their biggest deals on Thanksgiving night to get a jumpstart on things.

Inflation and Black Friday in 2022

Some years will be better than others, however, in light of events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, in particular. Because of the stress on many wallets this year, some people are wondering how inflation will affect Black Friday. Are we going to see the same discounts in 2022? Will we see fewer of them?

For 2022, experts predict that inflation, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and supply chain issues could impact overall profits. With inflation driving starting prices up, there's a good chance that the final "deal" prices could be higher than what we are accustomed to around Black Friday, which could result in fewer shoppers as well as slower sales growth for stores.

Retailers, nevertheless, are expected to counter this by hosting even more early sales. Consumers can expect to see the same kinds of discounts this year — that is, up to 75% off at certain stores, $10 off select minimum purchases, and "buy more, save more" promotions, among others, though, with higher starting prices, those discounts won't go as far this year compared to previous Black Fridays.

Another counter to inflation by retailers is to extend the Black Friday season. During the pandemic, retailers were aware that consumers started thinking about Black Friday shopping long before the holiday itself. Plenty of stores offered early sales in October 2021, and this year appears to repeat that trend. For example, this October 2022, Amazon hosted its Prime Early Access Sale — akin to a second Prime Day — while Target also implemented its Holiday Price Match Guarantee along with its Deal Days event.

Ultimately, the more extended Thanksgiving-Black Friday season could benefit shoppers, stretching it out and giving people more time to shop for deals they otherwise wouldn't have gotten on any other shopping day. Some experts don't think inflation will touch Black Friday shopping in 2022. After two years of pandemic-related restrictions and associated issues with supply chains and labor shortages, consumer spending has bounced back enough to offset those higher prices, some experts suggest.

According to Brian Field, global leader of retail consulting and analytics at Sensormatic Solutions, in an interview with Forbes; inflationary pricing has not significantly impacted consumer spending, with total retail sales up 9.9% through August 2022. "We have not seen this large of a consumer price increase in 40 years, but, with that said, the organic improvement in shopper visits is suggesting that inflationary pricing may not impact holiday shopping visits."
Mel Nov 23, 2022