All About Black Friday

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Podcast Transcript

The United States has created many cultural institutions which have spread around the world. People all over the Earth have enjoyed and benefited from rock and roll, Hollywood films, and the Internet. 

However, we’ve also created some things that have spread to other countries which, to be totally honest, are probably not our best look. 

Learn more about Black Friday, the surprising history of the term, and how it manifests around the world today, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The term Black Friday, as it is used today, refers to the Friday after Thanksgiving in the United States. It is given special attention because it is considered to be the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. 

American Thanksgiving falls approximately one month before Christmas, and because it always falls on a Thursday, many people have the following Friday off from work. That means that there are a lot of people who are able to go shopping.

The Christmas shopping season has traditionally been the biggest sales period of the year and the term black comes from the accounting tradition of using black ink to represent positive values and red ink to represent negative values. 

So, Black Friday is the day, or it at least begins the season, where retail stores become profitable or go into the black. 

Or at least that is the modern use of the word. 

The phrase “Black Friday”, however, goes back much earlier. While it didn’t initially refer to retail shopping, it did have an economic association.

The word “black” in a business sense has always had a mixed meaning. In an accounting sense, being in the black was good. However, market crashes were often also referred to as black, such as Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed in 1929. 

The first Black Friday occurred in 1869. 

During the Ulysses S. Grant administration, the government began selling its gold reserves to pay off the debt from the civil war. 

Three financiers, Jay Gould, James Fisk, and Able Corbin, tried to corner the market in gold. They formed a group called the Gold Ring to try and buy up as much gold as possible. Corbin was the cousin of the president and they tried to use his contact to influence the government’s gold sales, and hopefully even to stop it. 

The Grant administration was very corrupt and their plan actually worked for a while, driving up the price of gold. 

However, when Grant caught wind of this, he ordered the sale of gold, driving down the price, causing a panic and the markets to crash. It all occurred on Friday, September 24, 1869, a day was was dubbed Black Friday.

The association of the period after Thanksgiving with Christmas shopping goes back to the early 20th century. 

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to a week earlier just to extend the Christmas shopping season in the middle of the Great Depression.

The first association of the term Black Friday with the day after Thanksgiving occurred in the early 1950s in Philadelphia. The association really had more to do with the Army-Navy football game which took place every year in Philadelphia on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. 

The Friday before the game the city would be crowded, stores would be filled with shoppers and shoplifters, bars would be packed, people would get rowdy and fights would break out. The day was dubbed Black Friday by the police who weren’t able to get the day off.  

Again, the day had a negative connotation and had nothing to do with accountants black ink

The name Black Friday took off locally so much that the stores tried to change it to Big Friday to avoid the negative connotations, but that never got accepted. 

The current modern meaning of Black Friday started to talk off nationally in the late 1980s. 

Retailers embraced the term and gave it a positive association 

Stores began to offer sales and deals on Black Friday to get people into their stores. 

As things tend to do, Black Friday sales and promotions began to grow and get more elaborate. 

Stores, which might normally open at 10 am began to open early. 8 am or 7 am became the norm on Black Friday, and then of course it just kept getting earlier and earlier. Soon some stores would open at 5 am or even 4 am. 

The next logical step was just opening on Thanksgiving evening and just staying open 24 hours. 

Black Friday sales were then extended throughout the entire weekend. 

Sales and extra hours are not necessarily a bad thing. What began to give Black Friday a bad name were some of the promotions that were run. 

Stores began offering very good deals on products as a loss leader to the first customers in the door on Friday. Thousands of people would often wait outside overnight to line up for whatever the deal was.

In 2008, in Valley Stream, New York, 2,000 people were outside of a Walmart waiting for a 5 am opening. When the time arrived and the doors were open, the push of people into the store was so great that doors were broken down and one of the employees was killed in the stampede. 

Stampedes and near-riots happened almost every year somewhere in the country. 

People waiting in line would get in fights as people left the line or tried to butt ahead. There were instances of shootings, people getting maced and other instances of rather uncivilized behavior all over the country. 

Believe it or not, Black Friday is now being recognized in countries that don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving. They are just using the same date, the last Friday in November, to be Black Friday and the start of the Christmas shopping season.

There have been Black Friday sales appearing in countries all over the world including Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany. It still isn’t as big of a deal as it is in the US, but it is starting to appear more often. 

The funny thing is just as it is gaining in popularity overseas, it is becoming less of a thing back in the United States. 

The pandemic pretty much quashed Black Friday in 2020, which many retail stores didn’t seem to mind. The rush of people puts a strain on businesses and the people who work there. Some companies like REI in fact close their doors on Friday. 

…and of course, online commerce is lessening the importance of retail stores and rushing to a single place at a particular time for deals.  In fact, cyber Monday has become the bookend to Black Friday as the day when online stores offer deals.

Cyber Monday came about years ago when most people didn’t have good internet connections at home, and would be able to shop online when they went back to work.

For better or worse, and no matter how much it spreads around the world, Black Friday is definitely an American institution. 

The associate producers of Everything Everywhere Daily are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener Kyle Kindle on Apple Podcasts in the US. He writes:

New favorite podcast.

Love the succinct information with this podcast. Even loaded up the crummy apple podcast app to rate favorably as idk how to or can’t on Overcast app. Keep it up, I love it and gonna get my kids listening too!! I’m kind of drunk but that doesn’t detract from the solid performance of this podcast! Keep it up!

Thanks, Kyle! I’m happy to announce that your review is going into the review hall of fame. Overcast is a great podcast app, but you went out of your way to leave a review. Bonus points. You got your kids listening to the show. Bonus Points.

AND you did a drunk review. You hit the trifecta. 

Remember if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.