The most eagerly awaited time of the year has arrived for retailers and consumers hunting for a bargain and eager to get their hands on items offered at reduced prices. It would be wrong, however, to talk about Black Friday by looking only at the Friday after Thanksgiving in the United States, dubbed as the day when the Christmas shopping season begins. Shopping has now crossed temporal and spatial barriers. It is done offline and online, with a season that starts at least at the beginning of November and runs until the Tuesday after Black Friday.
A period almost a month long, which allows the most organised people to plan for Christmas presents, very often even managing to save a fair amount of money, compared to those who are forced to find gifts for friends, partners and family in the days leading up to 25 December.
A long history
Before we find out how the holiday has evolved in recent times, let us see when and how Black Friday came into being. The name does not seem ideal for an initiative that brings joy to shopkeepers and customers, yet this is how it has matured to the present day. The first use of Black Friday dates back to 1869 and refers to a financial crisis that bankrupted thousands of Americans. More than 60 years before the Black Tuesday that generated the Great Depression of 29 October 1929, on Friday 24 September 1869, financier Jay Gould and railroad entrepreneur James Fisk pooled their economic resources to buy as much gold as they could.
The aim was to skyrocket the price of the precious metal so as to sell it at exorbitant prices and secure a luxurious retirement. Upon discovering the plan, however, the administration led by President Ulysses Grant released a huge amount of gold, which sent the buying and selling into a tailspin and the pieces plummeting by 20 per cent. Thus the attempt of the two cunning scoundrels was averted, but at the same time, many people fell into disgrace (including Abel Corbin, President Grant’s brother-in-law).
Looking back to the Christmas parades organised by some shops precisely to attract crowds to their premises and encourage shopping, Black Friday began to be talked about in 1924 thanks to Macy’s, a well-known chain of department stores that organised the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. Allegorical wagons, street performers and bands perform for three hours in a parade in front of New York’s department store entrance.
Considered the largest parade in the world, it is still held in Manhattan today and has paved the way for many clones beyond US borders. By virtue of its great success, the parade has become something of an institution, with other shops deciding to start advertising for Christmas shopping only the next day – Black Friday – as a mark of respect.
In Pennsylvania’s largest city, the situation was originally quite different. While in 1951 and 1952, the term was used by Factory Management and Maintenance magazine to refer to the sickness habit of workers eager to enjoy a long weekend open since Thanksgiving, in 1975 Black Friday was first mentioned by the New York Times, referring to the busiest shopping day of the year in Philadelphia. Black Friday was part of the jargon the cops used to summarise the city’s chaos on the day after Thanksgiving Day, when residents, tourists and onlookers poured through the city streets to watch the army-navy football match scheduled for the following Saturday.
It was the most challenging time of the year for Philly’s police officers, who spent little or no time on the holiday to maintain law and order. Later the meaning was expanded, with Black Friday and Black Saturday becoming popular among city cops to refer to the wave of people and cars that filled the city in the early days of the Christmas shopping season.
Turning instead to retailers, the story goes that Black Friday was born out of the reversal retailers used in their accounts. Accustomed to being loss-making for most of the year and making maximum profits during Christmas, the owners recorded the former with a red pen and the latter with a black one. Thanks to the offerings and abundant takings that took place on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the daily list was set with the black pen. Hence the birth of Black Friday, according to a widespread but inaccurate tradition.
How shopping has changed
Coming to the present day, with e-commerce revolutionising the way people shop in the last decade, the spread of discounts and promotions has had two effects. Firstly, it has extended the shopping period with the arrival of Small Business Saturday (dedicated to local businesses), Cyber Monday, focusing on online purchases of electronic goods and Giving Tuesday, promoting volunteering and donations to charities. Secondly, with the surge in revenues recorded by shops, it has spread like wildfire to almost every country in the world.
Without dwelling too much on the figures, I will mention just one number to understand the phenomenon’s importance. According to Adobe Analytics, in 2021, US consumers spent $109.9 billion from the 1st of November to Cyber Monday, ranging from clothing to accessories, from body care products to travel, from smartphones to kitchen utensils to goods offered by supermarkets.
Because all companies take advantage of the occasion, Black Friday has become even more than Christmas, the event of the year for sellers and buyers. As much as it is now obligatory to speak of a shopping season (first it was one day, then two days, then a week, now the month of November), during the 24 hours of the last Black Friday, the total expenditure in the USA was 8.9 billion dollars. A real, big bargain.