History and Meaning of Black Friday

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Hordes of edgy predawn shoppers line up for hours outside stores on the day after Thanksgiving for deals, deals, deals!

Everyone knows that Black Friday is the shopping day of shopping days, but where did the name come from? Interestingly, the first event referred to as Black Friday had to do with a financial calamity brought about by the nefarious and underhanded plot of two greasy speculators to corner the U.S. gold market in 1869. More recently, the term, though originally with the same dark sentiment, has come to describe the commercially-charged day after Thanksgiving.

The Origins and Birth of the Black Friday

Just imagine hoards of hopeful and edgy shoppers waiting in quiet, murmuring crowds at predawn for “doorbuster” and “limited quantity” deals on the first official shopping day of the holiday season. Further, picture store managers and clerks nervously huddled together behind locked doors discussing game plans and 24-hour strategies to handle the impending onslaught.

No doubt, the Philadelphia Police Department felt the same nervousness in the 1960s and 70s as they prepared for that frenzied day sandwiched between Thanksgiving and the venerable Army-Navy game. Non-stop traffic jams and sprawling waves of anxious and eager pedestrians would soon run rampant over Center City, Philadelphia, PA, prompting civil servants all over to dub the day “Black Friday,” darkly describing the short-lived chaos about to ensue.

But despite its original darkly brooding connotations, the term would stick to the day like sales posters to shop windows. Although used broadly within Center City for years, the nickname was first nationally exposed (according to most accounts) in the The New York Times article, “Army vs. Navy: A Dimming Splendor,” November 29th, 1975.

The First “Official” Day of Holiday Shopping

In a modern sense, though, it matters little what Black Friday actually means because of what the day has come to represent to both shoppers and retailers. It is all about the retail now, and the original dark ring to the nickname has all but been replaced by commercial variations like, “Bargain Friday” or “After Thanksgiving Sale.” An article by msnbc illustrates just how big Black Friday has become, with more than 172 million shoppers visiting stores and websites from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Broken down, that means shoppers spent about $372.57 per person in 2008, and, according to many economists, there is a good chance they will spend even more this year. In fact, market researchers at IBISWorld target retail sales to rise 2.8 percent to $42.9 billion in 2009 and have gently floated out the rather rosy prediction that 76.9 million people will flock to stores on Black Friday alone.

And, who knows, these happy thoughts may have a shot at coming true, despite the year’s heavy economic recession. According to some analysts, the economy is stabilizing as we enter the holiday season, forecasts nationwide look to be seasonably fair, and an estimated 96 percent of retailers are already rolling out multitudinous promotions. In fact, NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis states that “retailers know that consumers are so bargain focused and bargain conscious.” The result is a retailer willing to work within a range of consumer budgets to make more sales than normal, and, to this end, Sears, Kmart, and Toys R Us have all resurrected their popular “layaway plans” to help shoppers spread out spending.

Black Friday Advertisements, Gimmicks, and Deals

But not all retail promotions are on the up and up, and, in a November 2009 on-line article by CNNMoney, Craig Johnson says, “advertising a Black Friday deal as “limited [in] quantities” is bogus.” Bogus or not, marketing ploys to get buyers in the door have proven to work a little too well in the past, and, in some cases, put consumers in real danger. Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, lends us this reminder: “We saw the stampede at a Wal-Mart store in New York last year on Black Friday that led to an employee’s death… The stampede happened because so many of the deals were advertised as limited supply.”

Indeed, many retail spokespersons are “not comfortable” addressing the “limited quantity” gimmick, while others claim it is a measure to better handle the Black Friday rush. And this is not the only trick retailers use. Consumer groups also warn about rainchecks and web shopping, as retailers don’t have a live inventory on-line and “out of stock” items may never come back “in stock.”

This year may be a little different, however, and it seems retailers will be fighting a little harder for every sale. On-line or not, with 96 percent or retailers advertising this Black Friday is shaping up to be a big one, proving that, despite its sorted and darkly driven past, what the day really comes down to now is hordes of edgy predawn shoppers lined up for hours outside stores on the day after Thanksgiving for deals, deals, deals!

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