American retail stores sold more stuff on one day in the fall of 2012 than Amazon sold in North America this entire summer. That day was Black Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday and for nine years America’s busiest shopping day. This year Black Friday had new competition from what’s becoming another important shopping day: Thanksgiving Day itself.
At least a dozen big U.S. retailers from Macy’s to Victoria’s Secret to Target opened on Thanksgiving night for the first time, or opened earlier Thanksgiving Day than ever before. The advanced start left eager shoppers little time to digest their turkey before heading to the malls to be the first in line for extravagantly discounted door-buster promotions. More than a million workers were missing from the Thanksgiving table entirely as they stocked shelves and stymied stampedes. Some of those workers represent beefed-up security, including newly hired off-duty police offers. Other retailers, including Wal-Mart, calmed Thanksgiving crowds by handing out tickets or wristbands guaranteeing that they wouldn’t miss out on deals once they reached the store. Before the holiday, 38 percent of shoppers said they were likely to hit the stores on Thanksgiving this year, mostly 18-to-34-year-olds who wanted to feel part of the excitement. Still, 41 percent said they wouldn’t venture out at all. Spending during the four-day holiday weekend fell for the first time since 2009.
Nobody is sure how Black Friday got its name. Some historians trace the term to the Philadelphia police, who were said to have coined it in 1961 to bellyache about the traffic. An urban myth claims the name marks the first day of profitability for retailers each year. Don’t believe it: November and December account for about 20 percent of retailers’ annual sales, so in most years companies are profitable well before the fourth Friday of November. The unofficial start to the holiday shopping season has been creeping earlier for several years. In 2012, many stores opened at midnight, and before that, early morning openings were used to lure customers seeking rock-bottom prices on items like televisions. The crowd scenes have been marred by stampedes, fights and at least one death. Online, sales have seen the same kind of slide forward. In 2005, retailers coined the term “Cyber Monday” to describe a surge in web purchases on the first work day after Thanksgiving by people who had spent the weekend browsing in stores. Now, increasing number of online shoppers, particularly those buying over their phones, are skipping the stores entirely and starting Cyber Monday as early as right after Thanksgiving dessert. Other countries have traditions similar to Black Friday: Many retailers in British Commonwealth nations open at 5 a.m. or earlier for Boxing Day, right after Christmas, with deep discounts for waiting customers.
Retailers say the crowds that show up on Thanksgiving night prove they’re giving customers what they want. Employees benefit too, from an extra day of work, often at higher pay. Yet retailers and analysts acknowledge that opening earlier does not necessarily boost sales. It can even dilute profit because the costs of holiday pay and bonus discounts for employees may outweigh the benefits of extra hours of sales. Still, stores say they have no choice if they want to stake a claim to shoppers’ tightening wallets. Retailers are also drawing ire from some customers and employees who have signed “Save Thanksgiving” petitions on Facebook and Change.org.
The Reference Shelf
- The National Retail Federation reported that 141 million people went shopping this Thanksgiving weekend.
- Mental_Floss magazine wrote a brief history of Black Friday.
- Researchers at Eastern Illinois University studied consumer behavior among Black Friday shoppers.
- Researchers at Winthrop University broke down the rituals and practices behind Black Friday shopping.