Black Friday: Where Did it Come From?
When the turkey is gone and the empty tin from the pumpkin pie clatters onto the countertop, out come the coupons. Millions of Americans plan their Black Friday strategy to outsmart or out shop the under-caffeinated consumers that will pour into stores and shopping malls for the doorbuster deals in the wee small hours of the following morning. But where did this bizarre tradition come from?
Back in the day, “Black” days were designated to refer to bad financial tidings: Black Tuesday was the start of the great Wall Street crash that sparked the Great Depression in 1929 (and Black Thursday was the week prior, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged to precipitate the crash). Black Wednesday was the day in 1992 that the British government was forced to remove the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism with huge economic losses. And Black Friday was the day that the U.S. gold market crashed in 1869. So how did Black Friday come to represent shopping?
One common story describes the origin as Philadelphia in the mid-1960s, as a term coined by Pennsylvania bus drivers to lament the heavy traffic on city streets as shoppers headed out the day after Thanksgiving to shop and enjoy the annual Army-Navy football game held on Saturday. Law enforcement in Philadelphia would dread the extra-long hours directing crowds and traffic in the cold, while shoplifters rejoiced in the chaos, taking advantage of the masses to help themselves to merchandise. These associations grew into a bit of marketing challenge, however, as businesses sought to distance themselves from such negative connotations.
Another story goes that Black Friday represents the day that retail businesses would finally begin to turn a profit for the year, moving from “the red” (negative) to “the black” (positive) on their income statements. These terms date back to old accounting practices when negative balances would literally be written in red ink, while everything positive would be written in black.
The accounting story is the one that stuck and consumers continue to help that profit turn positive by showing up for expanding sales extravaganzas. Now, it’s not unusual for Black Friday sales to span up to four days from major retailers and numerous offshoots have sprung up in recent years to include Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and #GivingTuesday, a day to celebrate philanthropy and generosity to nonprofit and community organizations.