For most of the last decade it’s been America’s biggest shopping day. That day is Black Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday — an emblem of opportunity, or excess, or both. Now contemporary shopping trends are dulling Black Friday’s appeal for consumers. Retailers offer bargains for a whole weekend or more to avoid the race-to-the bottom tactics that had been the staple of that day.
Online shopping on Thanksgiving and Black Friday surged about 18 percent from last year. This continued a shift away from retail stores; 2015 marked the first time online shoppers outnumbered in-store shoppers over the Thursday-to-Sunday weekend. Some store chains opened Thanksgiving Day in the hopes of pulling customers to the mall for door-buster deals the minute they put down their forks, including Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy. Macy’s opened at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving, an hour earlier than last year. Yet several retailers, including the HHGregg electronics chain and Mall of America in Minnesota, the nation’s largest mall, reversed course and decided not to open on Thanksgiving at all. For merchants, expanding Black Friday is designed to persuade customers to open wallets as early in the shopping season as possible, and the weekend still accounts for 10 to 15 percent of holiday sales. But it’s increasingly a harder sell. The amount the average shopper spent over this holiday weekend was just $289.19, compared to $299.60 spent in 2015.
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. 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. Still, it’s been difficult for retailers to export Black Friday overseas. In the U.K., Wal-Mart’s Asda supermarket and other chains scrapped Black Friday promotions in 2015 two years after initiating them, in part because of crashing websites and scuffles between customers.
Retailers say the fact that some shoppers show up on Thanksgiving night prove they’re giving customers what they want despite complaints that they’re ruining the holiday. Some stores say they have no choice if they want to stake a claim to shoppers’ wallets even as others, including REI, promote their refusal to open on Black Friday as a stand against rampant consumerism. Customers have more choice than ever over when — and how — to shop. They don’t have to line up at 2 a.m. to secure a great deal. The days of long lines, customer stampedes and overrun malls that characterized Black Friday’s time are fading fast.
The Reference Shelf
- Mental Floss magazine wrote a brief history of Black Friday.
- Researchers at Eastern Illinois University studied consumer behavior among Black Friday shoppers.
- New York magazine explains why Black Friday “is carefully designed to make you behave like an idiot.”
- The Washington Post on “The surprisingly political origins of ‘Cyber Monday.’”
- Bloomberg Professional Services clients can read Bloomberg Intelligence reports on Black Friday on the terminal at BI DEPTN <GO>.
First published Nov. 25, 2013
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