Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Black Friday

Updated on

For most of the last decade, Black Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, was America’s biggest shopping day — an emblem of opportunity and excess. But contemporary shopping trends have dulled 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. And other shopping holidays are now competing for the biggest-day crown.

The Situation

Online shopping on Thanksgiving and Black Friday was about 18 percent higher in 2016 than in 2015. 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. In the hopes of drawing more customers to the mall for door-buster deals the minute they put their forks down, many store chains, including Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy, open Thanksgiving Day. Yet several retailers, including the Mall of America in Minnesota, the nation’s largest mall, have reversed course and decided not to open on Thanksgiving at all or will close in the middle of the night. For merchants, expanding Black Friday is designed to persuade customers to open wallets as early in the Christmas 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 U.S. shopper spent both online and offline over the 2016 holiday weekend was just $289.19, compared with $299.60 spent in 2015. And other shopping holidays are stealing the limelight. Alibaba turned Singles Day, a quirky Nov. 11 celebration for young Chinese, into $25 billion in online sales this year. Amazon Prime Day, first held in 2015 to mark the online retailer’s 20th anniversary, generated about $1 billion for Inc., on July 11; roughly half the total e-commerce sales on Black Friday in 2016. 

The Background

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: Most years, retailers are profitable well before the fourth Friday of November; the last two months account for about 20 percent of annual sales. The unofficial start to the holiday shopping season has been creeping earlier for several years. In 2012, many stores opened at midnight on Thanksgiving, and before that, early morning openings were used to lure customers seeking rock-bottom prices on big-ticket 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. Retailers from Brazil to France have also started offering bargains on Black Friday, piggybacking on the U.S. hoopla. 

The Argument

Opponents of the early start to shopping, including members of the Facebook group Boycott Black Thursday, say employees should be allowed to spend the holiday with their families. Retailers say the fact that some shoppers show up on Thanksgiving night prove they’re giving customers what they want. 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. An increasing number of online shoppers, particularly those buying over their phones, are skipping the stores entirely. 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 heyday are fading fast.

The Reference Shelf

    First published Nov. 25, 2013

    To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
    Lindsey Rupp in New York at

    To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
    Anne Cronin at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.