In the 1940’s, Franklin Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November (as it was established by Abraham Lincoln) to the fourth Thursday. It essentially expanded the “holiday” season by a week and it was undeniably a move to boost the economy and retail sales.
While the holiday was borne of traditions celebrating the final harvest, Thanksgiving has been the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season since early in the 20th Century.
We may have Macy’s to blame for making Thanksgiving the kick-off of the shopping season when the store first mounted its parade in 1924 with the ultimate department store Santa in tow, signaling shoppers to take out their wallets.
The term “Black Friday” can be traced to the 1960s (reportedly reflecting the Philadelphia Police Department’s distaste for the crowds and traffic jams, although it had been used in conjunction with financial crises going back to the 1860s). More recently, Black Friday is thought to describe the day when retailers move from the red (losing money) to the black (profitability). It may or may not be true that a retailer’s profits are exclusively made in the last five weeks of a calendar year, but that is what we are told.
For many years, Black Friday was the day when retailers offered special sales, lower prices and other incentives for shoppers to shake off the turkey and head to the mall. It took a while for them to abandon their usual operating hours and open earlier … and earlier … and earlier … and of late, on Thanksgiving Day.
The retailers are not to blame. At least not all of them.
Imagine you own a store. Your biggest competitor is across the street and you both sell essentially the same stuff. For years, you both open every morning at 9 a.m. You both have sales. There really isn’t much to differentiate you.
You fight the battle for customers by offering a better deal, a better price or a better product. (But let’s be honest, most of the stuff highlighted in Black Friday/Thanksgiving sales is far from the best. For the most part, they aren’t selling quality, they’re selling price. But that’s another argument for another time.)
So one year, the store across the street opens an hour earlier than you. So the next year, you open an earlier than they do. And the next year, and the next year, and then you are both opening at 3 a.m., then midnight, and then on Thanksgiving evening.
And you do it for two simple reasons: 1) because your competition is doing it, and 2) because people are showing up.
Neither of the above is likely to change. People like a bargain, people like the deals … and many people truly enjoy Black Friday!
Drive by almost any major retailer a few hours before opening on Black Friday or Thanksgiving Day. There is a line outside. Folks bring chairs, some have tents. Some bring food and drinks. Some order pizza. (“I’m the 45th person on line outside of Wally World. Can I get three pies with everything and two liters of soda? Do you have beer?”)
These folks are going to be there every year, whether the store opens at the midnight hour, at dawn, or before the last slice of pumpkin pie has been passed around the family table.
This is not going to change until it changes.
And it is changing.
Retailers, from national chains to local businesses, are starting to expand Black Friday beyond even Thanksgiving Day. They are promoting Black Friday prices over a number of days leading up to Thanksgiving. They aren’t really being nice guys, they really just want you to open your wallet … in their stores.
And that is why Black Friday may go away.
It’s not really up to us. We can pledge not to shop on Thanksgiving Day or Black Friday, but plenty of others will. We can profess our disapproval of Thanksgiving Day openings (some polls say 90 percent of us object to it), but protests and petitions will not make most retailers alter their plans and operating hours (although things like Cyber Monday and Shop Small/Shop Local efforts are having some impact).
Black Friday/Thanksgiving openings will only end when they no longer make sense, when they no longer have a competitive advantage; when they no longer have an impact on the bottom line.
It will happen.
Not next year or the year after. But it will happen.
It will happen when being a part of ever earlier opening hours no longer makes sense for retailers. It will happen when retailers see a competitive (or image) advantage in not opening on Thanksgiving Day (which is starting to happen this year).
But if you enjoy the bargains, the mayhem of the lines, and spending Thanksgiving in a store with a bunch of strangers, go ahead.
Enjoy it while you can.
Black Friday will, someday, go away.
John Rice is a writer, video producer, marketing consultant, occasional TWICE contributor, and principal of Komedia Group.