When Black Gets the Blues

As online sales soar, has Black Friday lost its lustre?

Black has always been a byword for disaster and calamity, so it’s curious that ‘Black Friday’ has become the day that puts a smile on retailers’ faces as they start the festive shopping season with a rush of bargain hunters. Some say it’s the day that the red ink on the sales ledger turns black and into profit, but that’s a myth. The most reliable explanation for the phrase comes from Philadelphia in the 1960s. Apparently in the city the rush of shoppers the day after Thanksgiving coincided with the traditional Army vs. Navy football game, causing gridlock. Hence, for the local traffic police crews, ‘Black Friday’. The name stuck and spread, despite the local retailers’ attempt to rename it ‘Big Friday’.

Since 2005, Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year, which is logical enough in America where Thanksgiving is a bigger celebration than Christmas itself (and the following day is often given as a holiday). But the power of globalisation is vividly demonstrated by the fact that Black Friday is now celebrated all over the world, even though Thanksgiving isn’t. You can find Black Friday retail events in India, France, Britain, Mexico (where it’s known as El Buen Fin) and even Germany. In 2014 police were called to several stores across the UK as fights broke out the moment the doors opened, earning a telling-off from the Chief Constable of Manchester Police for the retailers concerned. Punch-ups and mayhem were, he concluded, ‘totally predictable’ which says a lot about the average bargain-hunter’s sense of priorities. Human decency, or 20% off a PS4? No contest…

But there are signs of a backlash. For the second consecutive year, the Seattle-based outdoor gear and apparel retailer REI is closing its doors on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. It won’t even be processing online sales on Black Friday and is instead giving all 12,287 employees a day off. CEO Jerry Stritzke plans to spend the day hiking on Mount Rainier with his grandson (as he did in 2015) and is suggesting that more of us go outdoors and make memories for ourselves instead of saving a few dollars. Around 1.4 million people pledged to #OptOutside in 2015 and more are expected to do so this year.

Maybe Black Friday started to lose its USP as retailers tried to gain a jump on each other by opening earlier and earlier. 6am Friday became 4am Friday became midnight became…yes, you’ve got it. Open all day Thanksgiving too. As Black Friday now starts a full 24 hours before the day itself, more and more retail sales staff in the US won’t be giving thanks for anything this November 24th.

There’s also the inexorable growth of online sales. Cyber Monday (the one following Thanksgiving weekend) became the day when anyone who hadn’t bagged a bargain on Black Friday could go online to find it there. Unless you’re a true masochist, camping outside a store’s entrance all night in late November loses its appeal when you can get the same deals in the warmth of your home in a couple of clicks.

So Black Friday is not what it was. In 2014, spending volume on Black Friday fell for the first time since the 2008 recession $50.9billion was spent over the four-day weelend, a drop of around 11% compared with the previous year. That’s not a sign of imminent recession, but of the way that festive gift sales have spread over a longer period. They call it ‘Christmas creep’ and it’s clearly good sense to spread your sales over a longer, more manageable period. Saves on security staff too. You could even give them a day off at Thanksgiving