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The True Meaning of Black Friday

posted by Bob Lawless

Nathalie Martin invited readers to skip Black Friday and do a spending fast. Her post caused me to wonder whether we have lost the true meaning of Black Friday. Based on an informal survey, it seems to be the case that people have forgotten why we call the day Black Friday. By "informal survey," of course, I mean I asked my family. That bit of empiricism anecdote is supported by a report from a friend who must remain anonymous because she was watching The View where she heard a similar discussion of the term's origins amid erroneous speculation that it had racial overtones.

Today, some people seem to understand the term "Black Friday" as roughly synonymous with the idea of "Crazy Friday" because of the multitudes swarming the shopping malls to elbow neighbors out of the way in pursuit of bargains. This idea is actually close to the apparent origins of the term, which Ethan Trex at the always wonderful Mental Floss traces to 1960s-era Philadelphia. The day between Thanksgiving and the Army-Navy football game produced bedlam in the city's retail district. And, yes, this means we might be able to pin the blame for Black Friday on the same city that once booed Santa Claus.

The expression "Black Friday" went national on the idea that it was the day the retailers started to turn a profit -- that is, the day they "went into the black." Of course, retailers try to make a profit all year round, and they hope the day after Thanksgiving is just one more profitable day. Still, the term "Black Friday" was a subtle reminder that the retailers were making money off of you. It is not an accident that this historical, even if inaccurate, meaning is being lost. In age of consumerism, retailers don't pull in customers by reminding them big corporations are making profits off of them. On the consumer side, it ruins the fun to remember that the so-called big, big deals are making a lot of profit for the corporate retail chains.

A counter-myth also has developed around Black Friday. Based on 10-year old information in a dated post on Snopes.com (usually a reliable source), many sites report that Black Friday is not the busiest shopping day of the year. The National Retail Federation, however, cites data from Shopper Trak that Black Friday was, in fact, the busiest shopping day in 2011, and a Shopper Trak press release suggests the same will be true in 2012. Black Friday has become a cultural phenomenon whose scale eclipses what was happening ten years ago in the data Snopes uses. Part of the growth in the cultural phenomenon requires us to forget who really benefits from the day.

UPDATE (11/20): In response to a question I posted on their site, Snopes.com pointed out that I had missed their distinction between foot traffic and sales. They maintain that, although more current statistics may show that Black Friday has the most foot traffic, the highest sales occur on another date. They have a quote from a National Retail Federation spokesperson who says that many people only browse on Black Friday. This is a fair distinction, although foot traffic and sales must be highly correlated. (Maybe a reader with access to retail sales data by day can confirm what day has the highest retail sales?) In any event, I wonder whether foot traffic is not the criterion about which most people would carewhen measuring the "busiest" shopping day.


Maybe part of the reason for the confusion with the Snopes data is that "busiest" is not a very precise term. It is a little silly to debate what "busiest" means in this context - the debate should be either: (i) what day has the most foot traffic; or (ii) what day has the most sales (though I suppose this can be further broken down into number or volume).

Perhaps instead of boring seasonal karaoke music, the retailers should consider playing an ode to the day... or at least to a day that sounds the same:


I thought Black Friday also had to do with the stock market crash -- in a more traditional, dreaded connotation of a "black" day (not the cheerier accountant's ink version)?

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