Retailers’ big day changes with time
Last night, millions of Americans pushed themselves away from the Thanksgiving table and went shopping, or to work, at a big-box store. Bargain hunters stood in line for hours, and a few probably fought over a product in short supply.
How did the holiday celebrating Pilgrims’ first harvest in the New World come to this?
Thanksgiving has been co-opted by a phenomenon that has grown nearly as large as the holiday itself, and certainly longer than the single day suggested by the name Black Friday. Some say Black Friday is past its prime, but the day-after-Thanksgiving celebration of the ultimate deal is more of an event than ever before.
It also starts earlier than ever. Black Friday started at 8 p.m. Thursday at major retailers such as Walmart, Toys R Us and Sears, and at 9 p.m. at Target.
“It’s the second year that Black Friday is more than 24 hours, so it’s the longest day of the year,” joked Jeff Green, a retail analyst for the past 28 years.
The day after Thanksgiving has always been a big shopping day because of its proximity to Christmas. Until the 1970s, many people in Cincinnati and across the country kicked off the Christmas shopping season at Downtown department stores. As malls and big-box retailers grew up in the suburbs, the shoppers followed, Green said.
The name Black Friday is relatively recent, though: It didn’t come into common usage in the Cincinnati area until the early 1990s. Historians have traced it back to the 1960s in Philadelphia, when police complained about the extra pedestrians and traffic they had to deal with near downtown stores.
However, Green prefers the better-known theory that it was retailers’ name for the day they went from the red into the black for the year. Consumers used to spend 35 percent of their retail dollars in the month before Christmas, he said, although today spending is more spread out. Just over half of consumers – 52 percent – planned to start their holiday shopping before Thanksgiving this year, according to Kantar Retail.
Green dates Black Friday’s peak as a single-day event in the mid-1990s. It was never the biggest shopping day of the year, though, until 2003; that honor typically went to the Saturday before Christmas.
In 2005, Black Friday’s retail success was cemented when stores started offering limited-supply doorbusters, Green said. Shoppers became a victim of this strategy in 2006, as over-eager crowds began fighting over deals and trampling people to get into stores.
“Before that they would have sales, but they wouldn’t have the deeply discounted loss leaders,” he said. “That’s when it turned violent.”
Stores have stuck with the doorbuster model, however, resulting in an array of injuries and arrests annually. A Walmart employee was killed in a stampede in New York in 2008, and last year a woman used pepper spray on others trying to get a video game at a California Walmart.
The Internet began coming into play as a shopping aid in the early 2000s as people such as Michael Brim created websites dedicated to getting hold of stores’ Black Friday ads in advance and publishing them. It seems almost quaint now, but shoppers used to learn about deals through ads in their Thanksgiving day newspaper – typically the thickest newspaper of the year.
Brim’s BFAds.net and similar sites still collect all the ads in one place for shoppers, but now stores themselves share their deals in advance via Twitter, Facebook and their websites.
Cyber Monday, the companion to Black Friday, was coined in 2005. Online retailers found that their sales spiked on the Monday after Thanksgiving, as people returned to work and hopped on their employers’ computers to find deals they didn’t get over the weekend.
The shift to online shopping has continued; this year Shop.org and the National Retail Federation are estimating online holiday sales of $96 billion, compared with overall holiday spending of $586 billion.
Black Friday creep also started in the mid-2000s, with stores opening earlier each year to accommodate shoppers lining up earlier and earlier.
“Is it dying? No,” Brim said. “Is it changing? Yes. It’s not just six hours on a Friday … but Black Friday is still the peak of the mountain.”
Green agreed Black Friday will continue to adapt to shoppers’ changing needs.
“It will morph into something different, but it will still be called Black Friday, and it will still be the symbolic start of the Christmas season.”