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Black Friday: A Not Too Distant Past and an Uncertain Future

Posted by Jeff McKenna on Tue, Nov 22, 2011

Holiday Shopping Consumer PulseBlack Friday is nearly upon us.  For Americans under 30, the Friday after Thanksgiving has always been “Black Friday,” and the madness of doorbusters, riots, and people camping out in front of major retailers defines the day.  But this hasn’t always been the case, and a brief walk down memory lane reminds me that great opportunities exist to prepare and define the next phase of this holiday tradition…

A nice summary of “Black Friday” history shows the day after Thanksgiving has marked the start of the holiday shopping season for over a century.

Just a few interesting facts…

  • It wasn’t until recent years (mid-‘00s) that Black Friday actually became the busiest shopping day of the year.

  • Philadelphia police officers dubbed the day “Black Friday” around the mid-1960s because of the massive traffic in the city brought on by the start of the shopping season and the annual Army-Navy football game, which was hosted in Philadelphia.

  • Black Friday was not given the name because it was the date when retailers’ balance sheets went from being in the red to being in the black.  This myth arose in the mid-1980s as the name became part of common lexicon, but retailers started to spin the new story to counteract negative connotations.

Snooping around YouTube, I found this Miami news report from 1984:

One noteworthy aspect of the video, besides the fashion (yikes!), is the fact that “Black Friday” is never mentioned.  Not one reference to “black” or “Friday,” even though the telecast was reporting about the big start to the holiday shopping season.   In fact, the reporter interviewed a husband and wife shopping together – not like today where Black Friday is promoted as a “lone wolf” activity, where a solo shopper has the freedom and flexibility to snatch up every deal. Or alternatively it is treated like a team event where groups of shoppers strategically coordinate their shopping tactics.

On the other hand, the final segment of the clip references the start of the retail store camping-out trend, with the story about Cabbage Patch Kids.  If you don’t know the history of the original CPK, watch this video, and skip to the 1-minute mark to see the vision of Holiday shopping future back in 1983:


So, how does this apply today?  Are we to expect Black Friday to continue its march to become the “Battle Royale” of shopping events, and even swallow up Thanksgiving, as several are cautioning?

I don’t think this is necessarily the case.  In fact, the point of the earlier comments is that things change, and rather rapidly at that.  Black Friday has not always been the gluttonous event of “doorbusters” and “Midnight Madness” sales.  While it has marked the start of year-end shopping activity, it’s only been recently since retailers have put a huge premium on this single day.

And I think we see the winds of change in new shopping behaviors.  As we recently reported from research in our Consumer Pulse, nearly the same share of people plan to shop online on Cyber Monday (38%) as on Black Friday (39%) this year.  And, online retailers have been implementing a big push to attract shoppers this year as they seek to gain a larger share of holiday sales (my inbox is filled with offers from a wide variety of e-tailers, and all I need to do is click a mouse rather than sit outside my local Best Buy with thermos in-hand.)

 In the end, the online start to holiday shopping and doorbuster deals will become “serverbuster” deals, and people looking for the killer deals or must-have gifts will do it online.  (The recent Target Missoni online fiasco shows that shoppers are as content rioting online as in-stores)  Then, perhaps, the Friday after Thanksgiving will return to the old days with families would get together and simply go shopping.

Holiday Shopper Consumer PulseFor more on holiday shopping trends download our latest Consumer Pulse: The Holiday Shopper: Cyber Monday, Black Friday, online shopping and what they mean for retailers.



Posted by Jeff McKenna. Jeff is a senior consultant at CMB, he is not asking for a Cabbage Patch Kid this year.

Topics: Consumer Pulse, retail research