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Everything You Know About Black Friday Is Wrong

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Everything You Know About Black Friday Is Wrong
Everything You Know About Black Friday Is Wrong

Beginning in the nineteen-thirties, thousands of fans thronged Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium for the Army-Navy football game. As festive as the mood was inside the stadium, it wasn’t nearly so cheerful for the Philadelphia police officers who had to herd the crowds. The game was frequently held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and just as visiting fans were showing up the day before, holiday shoppers also would descend on downtown. On those Fridays after Thanksgiving, the late Joseph P. Barrett, a longtime reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, recalled, even members of the police band were called upon to direct traffic. The cops nicknamed the day of gridlock Black Friday, and soon others started to do the same.

Retailers worried the phrase would scare people away. A few weeks after the 1961 game, which President John F. Kennedy had attended, the P.R. pioneer Denny Griswold described in her industry newsletter, Public Relations News, the efforts by Philadelphia merchants and city officials to rebrand the day Big Friday, in reference to the start of the holiday shopping season. (“The media coöperated,” Griswold wrote.) Big Friday didn’t stick, but the idea behind it did, in Philadelphia and, eventually, beyond. A few decades later, when the term came to describe a day when retailers’ ledgers shifted “into the black” for the year—a connotation also pushed by marketers—people assumed that had always been the connotation.

That idea never made sense to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an amateur etymologist. “Since when was ‘Black Friday’ ever used in a positive manner?” she wrote in an e-mail. She searched for the earliest uses of the phrase, finally landing on Griswold’s reference, a discovery Taylor-Blake reported to the listserv of the American Dialect Society.

It turns out that a lot of what we’re told about Black Friday is invented by retailers and the marketing experts they hire. Retailers like Black Friday because the earlier customers start their holiday shopping, the more they are likely to spend over all. This year, the competition is heightened because of a relatively short window between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In search of holiday-season profits, retailers work to exploit people’s worries about missing a good deal—and the media, looking for a fun story, joins in.

Black Friday has also developed a dangerous undercurrent. Five years ago, a Walmart employee at a Long Island store was trampled to death by a frantic crowd. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration now recommends that stores staff their entrances with uniformed guards and place shopping carts “and other potential obstacles or projectiles” away from the doors. Black Friday also is ruining retail workers’ holidays, as it creeps earlier into Thanksgiving: on Thursday this year Kmart will open at 6 A.M., Walmart at 6 P.M., Target at 8 P.M.

Though local television news cameras dutifully scan the lines of bundled shoppers waiting in lawn chairs outside their favorite stores, reinforcing the notion that shopping on Black Friday is obligatory, increasing numbers of Americans are opting out. A Nielsen survey published November 18th reported that only thirteen per cent of consumers plan to visit a store this Friday, down from seventeen per cent last year and continuing a four-year slide that has been largely precipitated by the growth of online shopping—which, of course, now has its own marketer-created term, Cyber Monday.

Black Friday doesn’t even necessarily offer the best discounts, contrary to what retailers want their customers to believe. Rather than selling most merchandise at full price and marking down what doesn’t sell, stores now engineer their prices, so that the “discounted” prices are actually at the level they had wanted all along. Some “door-buster” items, in limited quantities, lure people into stores. Many gifts, though, have lower price tags at other times. The consumer-price research firm Decide Inc. analyzed data for the Wall Street Journal last year and found that Elmo dolls, Ugg boots, Samsung TVs, and KitchenAid stand mixers were less expensive on other days. (Decide closed its services in September, after being purchased by eBay.) Consumer Reports indicates that many home appliances and small consumer electronics are cheapest in December.

Last year, Black Friday was the busiest day for shoppers visiting stores, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago firm that tallies the numbers of people visiting retailers. But there were plenty of procrastinators, too: the Saturday before Christmas was the second-busiest day. In fact, four of the ten biggest shopping days this year are expected to come in the week leading up to Christmas, ShopperTrak projected. It’s harder for retailers to plan for that wave of spending late in the season, so they focus instead on enticing shoppers to buy on Black Friday, locking in their profits weeks earlier. (The amount spent on TV ads promoting Black Friday reached eleven million dollars last year, according to Nielsen, nearly five times the 2011 total.)

Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American founder of the British department-store chain Selfridges and the first to post in his stores the number of shopping days until Christmas, understood that retailers must seduce their customers; he titled his history of merchant cultures “The Romance of Commerce.” In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Selfridge and other retailers used the Christmas season to spin a fantasy of a happier life, invoking the Victorian era’s emphasis on children and the domestic sphere. Puncturing the myths surrounding Christmas, even cynically manufactured ones, can make a person feel like the Grinch, but Bonnie Taylor-Blake, the amateur etymologist, hasn’t suffered. “I’m fortunate that family, friends, and co-workers I’ve shared this story with are, like me, skeptical at heart,” she said. She doesn’t care much for shopping; on Black Friday, she plans to stay home.

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