What is Black Friday?

Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving has been the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season since the late 19th century when President Abraham Lincoln designated the Thanksgiving holiday as the last Thursday in November. But the day didn't earn the name "Black Friday" until much later.

Black Friday (Holiday Shopping) has two relevant meanings. Black Friday was a stock market catastrophe that took place on September 24, 1869. On that day, after a period of rampant speculation, the price of gold plummeted, and the markets crashed.

But the more contemporary meaning refers to the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, which has also traditionally been a holiday itself for many employees. It is typically a day full of special shopping deals and heavy discounts and is considered as the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

Cyber Monday, the Monday after Black Friday, is a 24-hour online shopping event that was created to persuade people to do their shopping online and is now seen as an extension of the Black Friday sales.

Why is it called "Black Friday"?

Black Friday has become a marketing sensation in recent years. Since 2005, it has been the busiest shopping day of the year. To lure shoppers, retailers routinely open their doors very early in the morning (and in some cases, Thanksgiving evening!) and offer special sales and promotions to the shoppers that arrive early.

Some of the special deals offered by stores are only available in limited quantities. That is why some shoppers intent on getting the best deals often camp out in front of stores overnight so that they'll be the first in line when the doors open.

But why Black Friday?

There are a couple of explanations of how this name came about.

Historians believe the name started in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. Bus drivers and police used “Black Friday" to describe the heavy traffic that would clog city streets the day after Thanksgiving as shoppers headed to the stores.

Businesses, however, didn't like the negative tone associated with the Black Friday name. In the early 1980s, a more positive explanation of the name began to circulate.

According to this alternative explanation, Black Friday is the day when retailers finally begin to turn a profit for the year. In accounting terms, operating at a loss (losing money) is called being in the red" because accountants traditionally used red ink to show negative amounts (losses).

Positive amounts (profits) were usually shown in black ink. Thus, being “in the black" is a good thing because it means stores are operating at a profit (making money).

Regardless of when a retailer turns a profit for the year, it's clear that Black Friday is a very important day for most retailers. Some retailers are indeed dependent on holiday shopping to turn a profit for the year. For others, it's a day when they definitely make bigger-than-usual profits — and that's a lot of black ink!

The money spent by consumers on Black Friday is seen as a measure of the economy. It gives economists a way to gauge consumer confidence and discretionary spending.

When Is Black Friday?

Black Friday occurs the day after Thanksgiving. In 2021, Black Friday takes place on Nov. 26.

History of Black Friday

How Black Friday Got Its Name
Thanksgiving norm. Photo: Country Living Magazine

In 1939, during the Great Depression, Thanksgiving happened to fall during the fifth week of November. Retailers warned they would go bankrupt because the holiday shopping season was too short. They petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move the Thanksgiving holiday up to the fourth Thursday.

Unfortunately, by this time it was late October. Most people had already made their plans. Some were so upset that they called the holiday "Franksgiving" instead. Only 25 states followed FDR's move. Texas and Colorado celebrated two holidays, which forced some companies to give their employees an extra day off.

In 1941, Congress ended the confusion. It passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November no matter what, according to The Balance.

Origins of Black Friday Name

The concept of retailers throwing post-Turkey Day sales started long before the day was actually coined "Black Friday.” In an effort to kick off the holiday shopping season with a bang and attract hordes of shoppers, stores have promoted major deals the day after Thanksgiving for decades, banking on the fact that many companies and businesses gave employees that Friday off.

So why the name? Some say the day is called "Black Friday" in homage to the term "black" referring to being profitable, which stems from the old bookkeeping practice of recording profits in black ink and losses in red ink. The idea is retail businesses sell enough on this Friday (and the ensuing weekend) to put themselves "in the black” for the rest of the year.

However, long before it started appearing in advertisements and commercials, the term was actually coined by overworked Philadelphia police officers. In the 1950s, crowds of shoppers and visitors flooded the City of Brotherly Love the day after Thanksgiving. Not only did Philadelphia stores tout major sales and the unveiling of holiday decorations on this special day, but the city also hosted the Army-Navy football game on Saturday of the same weekend.

As a result, traffic cops were required to work 12-hour shifts to deal with the throngs of drivers and pedestrians, and they were not allowed to take the day off. Over time, the annoyed officers started to refer to this dreaded workday as "Black Friday."

The Modern Black Friday Arrives

In the 1950s, people began calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving, essentially giving themselves a four-day weekend. Since stores were open, as were most businesses, those playing hooky could also get a head start on their holiday shopping. That’s as long as the boss didn't see them. Rather than try to determine whose pay should be cut, and who was legitimately sick, many businesses started adding that day as another paid holiday.

In 1966, the Black Friday name became famous in print. That's when a story appeared in an ad in The American Philatelist, a stamp collectors' magazine. The Philadelphia Police Department had used the name to describe the shopping chaos at downtown stores.

The number of shoppers created traffic accidents and sometimes even violence, presaging Black Friday violence to come.

Black Friday Summmary

*Black Friday refers to the day after Thanksgiving and is symbolically seen as the start of the critical holiday shopping season.

*Historically, Black Friday was also a day in 1869 in which the price of gold tanked and stock markets tumbled in response.

*Stores offer big discounts on electronics, toys, and other gifts, or at least the first opportunity for consumers to buy whatever the hottest products are.

*Also important to retailers: Cyber Monday, the first day back to work for many consumers after the long holiday weekend.

How Black Friday Got Its Name
Black Friday violence. Photo: dupsm

One thing hasn’t changed, retailers are still using the loss-leader approach to bring store and site traffic over the Black Friday season that now extends into December, well beyond Cyber Monday with Green Monday on December 10th this year. Selling select products at a loss brings more money to your store or website for other accompanying purchases.

More brands are finding powerful ways to seamlessly integrate the online and offline customer experience. Walmart’s mobile app became an interactive guide — empowering customers to chart the fastest course to their deals of choice.

While online sales jumped significantly, retailers saw a reassuring show of in-store traffic, something to be thankful for while their most pivotal season of the year is still underway, as reported by RIS.

Black Friday Meant "Discounts"

With all that shopping activity, the Friday after Thanksgiving became one of the most profitable days of the year. Because accountants use black to signify profit when recording each day's book entries (and red to indicate a loss), the name took.

So, Black Friday now means profitable Friday to retailing and the rest of the economy. That's because retail and consumer spending drives almost 70% of U.S. gross domestic product. Retailers adopted the name, but this time to reflect their success. To encourage more people to shop, retailers began to offer deep discounts only available on that day.

Black Friday Shopping Tips

Make the most of Black Friday deals. Start with a list of items and use sale flyers and promotions to determine which store has the best price. Set a budget and stick with it before heading out.

Read the fine print. Some retailers may offer an additional percentage off the purchase but exclude specific deals or items such as “doorbusters.” Watch for companies boasting a high percentage off; the item may be “75% off,” but the retailer could inflate the original price. Carefully check the price tags, terms and conditions. Research online using a secure Wi-Fi connection to see if competitors have the item at a better price.

Plan out the excursion. Sometimes it’s unnecessary to wait to see what retailers will offer deals on Black Friday; often, they will release Black Friday flyers weeks ahead of time so that consumers can plan out their shopping spree. Make a map of the stores to visit and what items are at which store. Some retailers only honor sale ads during a specific time frame or on certain days, and may limit the amount of deeply discounted items available for purchase.

Sign-up for email alerts. Many stores release their best Black Friday deals and exclusive coupons to people who have subscribed to their emails. Sign up ahead of the holiday season, and then unsubscribe afterward, if needed.

Do your research. Read product reviews on highly discounted items. It could be a cheaper model or brand advertised and not what the buyer expects. Check BBB.org for Business Profiles of the stores and read what other customers have experienced.

Know the return policy and warranty information. Pass along any information about returns, exchanges, repairs, and warranties to the person who will use the item. Gift receipts are an easy way for recipients to return or exchange a gift if it’s not just right, but make sure the gift recipient can return the item before purchasing.