The New History Of Black Friday

A few years ago, PYMNTS told you the history of Black Friday — from its early origins in Philly to its declared “death” in 2013. But history kept going on, as it tends to, and Black Friday isn’t dead these days so much as different. It’s longer, more digital and a lot more mixed up with Thanksgiving than it once was, but experts still depend on it to drive commerce — and a lot of it.

As PYMNTS reported a few years back, it is pretty easy to get the history of Black Friday wrong. Most people know some version of an apocryphal legend about how retailers need the holiday shopping season to get their sales “into the black,” and Black Friday is named for the beginning of the profitable season.

In fact, the original context for the phrase “Black Friday” had absolutely nothing to do with shopping whatsoever. The term, as far as we can tell, first appeared in 1951, and it was in reference to employees who were consistently taken ill on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The second usage was a euphemism used by Philadelphia police during the annual Army-Navy football game, which was a traffic nightmare in the city.

By the 1960s, the always innovative people of Philadelphia were using the phrase “Black Friday” to refer to both the traffic caused by football fans and to avid shoppers out prowling the city for deals and doorbusters. It wasn’t until the late 70s and early 80s that the phrase actually went national, and retailers of all sizes embraced the Friday after Thanksgiving as the natural locus for the most enthusiastic — and deal-seeking — of all holiday shopping.

From then on, the evolution was toward extremity. In the 1990s, stores started opening earlier and earlier. As of 1995, Walmart was considered extreme for opening at 5 a.m. Doorbusters were invented by JCPenney in 1949, but starting in and around 1985 and running for a 25-year period, Macy’s, Walmart and Best Buy are all widely credited with elevating it to an art form.

But by the early aughts and into the 2010s, the mass-commerce festival condensed into one crazy day was starting to appear to be a bit in trouble. Every year, reports of violence — and, in some cases, deaths — at Black Friday shopping events getting out of hand served to dampen many people’s enthusiasm. More importantly, the rise of eCommerce meant that customers had a second option for snapping up lots of holiday discounts without having to brave the crowded mall.

By 2013, Black Friday had been officially declared “dead” by the experts — a relic of history.

Except that is the funny thing about history — it has this strange habit of carrying on. And dead though Black Friday has apparently been for two years, it seems even its history has carried on.

So, what is the new history of Black Friday?


It’s A Month Long

While there have long been jokes about the holiday season starting the minute the Halloween decorations are down, in 2016, that isn’t so much a joke as an accurate observation of how the holiday shopping season is now laid out.

As with many things commerce and retail these days, Amazon can rightly be held responsible for setting the pace. As of 2015, it was officially starting its “Black Friday” promotions on Nov. 1, with its normal trimmings of special, timed offers (that encourage users to check in often to make sure they aren’t missing out), early access for Prime members and a series of special promotions within the marketplace focused on getting consumers moving early (and its supply chain buzzing in an orderly fashion, instead of all at once toward the end).

Unsurprisingly, as of this year, Newegg, Best Buy, Target, Walmart, Kohl’s and Bed Bath & Beyond had all followed suit, and that is just offering a very quick sampling. A more extensive tour of the net will quickly confirm that Black Friday officially broke out online a week ago.

And while perhaps all of this fury to be first can seem a bit strange from the outside, according to InfoScout’s Jared Schrieber, the data indicates there is a very good reason for this obsession with being the first place consumers shop during the holiday season. The first location gets the most sales.

“A lot of the big family household purchases happen early,” said Schrieber. “People get those out of the way early and save their buying for other people outside the household to later into the season. And those tend to be smaller items.”


It’s Moving Online

Last year was the first year that stores and online shopping destinations were roughly tied for number of Black Friday shoppers. This year, 2016, will mark the year that the web wins Black Friday.

Slice Intelligence estimates that Black Friday eCommerce sales rose 40 percent last year compared to 2014, while a Deloitte survey found that shoppers expect to spend about 51 percent of their holiday budget online this year. Combine those two trends, and it seems likely that the web will win out this year (though there are still those betting against it — the International Council of Shopping Centers’ 2016 Black Friday Consumer Survey found that 81 percent of this weekend’s shoppers would hit stores. We only note to consider the source).

And this year is also targeted to be the first year that online sales during the holiday season will break the $100 billion mark. Last year, it got close — online sales notched $95.5 billion.

Still, even if customers won’t be going to the stores, the experts are predicting a Black Friday commerce spike.

It’s just that it is going to start on Thanksgiving at 12:01 a.m.


Thanksgiving Claimed For Commerce

While, a few years ago, there was much grousing about stores opening on the holidays, in 2016, that has ebbed off. Though most of the mainstay brick-and-mortar players, like Walmart, Toys”R”Us and Macy’s, are definitely opening their doors Thanksgiving night, brands that had been opening (or considering opening) on Thanksgiving, like the TJX stores, Barnes & Noble and Crate and Barrel, are saying no thanks to opening on Thanksgiving this year.

But almost every major retailer is starting its Black Friday sale the moment the clock strikes midnight on Thanksgiving morning because data from recent years indicates that their 12–24 hours of digital inaction was Amazon’s gain, as consumers waiting for courses, avoiding their families or looking for something to do other than make small talk decided Thanksgiving was a wonderful time to Christmas shop.

And big things are expected from online retail for Thanksgiving Day. ComScore estimates that online sales could exceed $1 billion on Thanksgiving for the first time ever this year.

Could, of course, does not mean it will — where consumers show up and how ready they are to spend versus browse remain to be seen.

But the new history of Black Friday is writing itself and taking a rather different shape as it becomes less about a day of the year and more about a shorthand for “discounted holiday-related shopping.”

Whether “online” becomes a fixed part of that definition or if the web will always be sharing some part of the day with the physical store is still being sorted out by historians.

Happy shopping.