It’s no secret that we spend a great deal of our November at Postconsumers discussing the phenomenon that is Black Friday.  If we’re being perfectly honest, it’s almost unbelievable to us what a behemoth this shopping tradition has become. But was it always like this? While Black Friday was clearly always designed to get bodies into stores and buying “stuff”, how did it ultimately become the over-the-top event that it is today? To understand the present, one must look to the past. So we decided to take a little bit of a look at the history of Black Friday.

Believe it Or Not, Black Friday Is Actually About Accounting Terms

As Black Friday became more and more of a big deal, the common assumption was that the name came from the crowds, stress and (these days) actual violent encounters that happen on America’s busiest shopping day. But the reality of how the term was coined is much different. The term “Black Friday” first surfaced in the 1960’s as an accounting reference for retailers. The Friday after Thanksgiving, which has always marked the official start to holiday shopping season, is when many retail companies moved from “the red” (non-profitable) to “the black” (profitable) for the year. Remember that in the 1960’s most accounting records were still kept by hand and it was still common to use red ink to indicate losses and black ink to indicate profit. A lot has changed since then, obviously. What hasn’t changed is that for most retail companies, there’s still a huge reliance on the holiday shopping season to create a profitable year. And as the ability to turn profit becomes harder and the need becomes greater, the incentives that stores will use to create a strong start to the holiday retail season become larger and more overwhelming. Thus the “door busters” of Black Friday season.

The Tie Between the Start of the Holiday Season and Retail Stores

Black Friday timing also has historical ties to the retail sector. Thanksgiving Day parades are a great tradition in many cities, and typically they are sponsored by department stores. Of course, the most popular and well-known is the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City, but it’s not the only one. And particularly before the expansion of mass media it was common for the biggest retail store in any city to sponsor the Thanksgiving Day parade. Of course, we all know that the final float in most Thanksgiving Day parades is a Santa float with the message that “Santa is about to get started” or “It’s holiday season!” This was always an intentional move on retailers parts to get customers motivated to begin shopping for the holidays, and certainly the act of sponsoring the parade itself was designed to promote and advertise the store as a holiday shopping destination. So even before Black Friday was coined as a term, a strong relationship between the days following Thanksgiving and the start of holiday retail shopping season existed.

Skip to Cyber Monday

Over the years, obviously, Black Friday grew in scope and size to the retail monster we know it to be today. There isn’t a truly definitive moment where things went over the top. We do know that 2006 was the first time a Black Friday injury was reported and 2008 was the first time that there was a death attributed to Black Friday. Since 2006 there have been seven deaths and 90 injuries attributed to Black Friday, which is frankly just crazy when you consider that it’s a day to shop. You can see the official numbers count here. But that hasn’t stopped the concept from expanding. In 2005, a marketing publication coined the term “Cyber Monday” and a new “retail holiday” was born. Now Cyber Monday is one of the biggest online shopping days of the year and the “retail holiday” concept has been expanded. But it’s not only Cyber Monday that expanded the scope of Black Friday from a single day to a week-long event. As retailers had to compete more and more for Black Friday dollars, they did so by “racing” to be first to offer them. Now, not only is it common practice for the majority of retailers to actually open on Thanksgiving Day, but you can often find Black Friday deals that start as early as Monday. And you can expect to see advertisements for Black Friday deals as early as Halloween. Even worse, each year it seems to get earlier and earlier.

The Future of Black Friday

While “Shop Local Saturday” and “Buy Nothing Day” are both making progress, the real question is how desperate will retailers get to compete for ever shrinking consumer dollars? Americans in particular have shown that they are far more concerned with the price of a good than the morality or history behind it (see airline fares as an example). Increasingly, one hopes the movement away from overt consumerism, to – dare we say – postconsumerism, gains traction. However, like most things, we may want to brace ourselves to see things get worse before they get better. The consumer grasp on western culture will take at least as long to unwind as it did to build up – which is why it’s important that we all do our part every day to educate ourselves and others about how to let go of addictive consumerism and fight the consumer media machine. Boycotting Black Friday and making better decisions is a great place to start!

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