Black Friday Fights for Relevance

We have reached another milestone in the countdown to Christmas: there are about 100 days left until Black Friday.

For more than a century Black Friday has been viewed as an unofficial beginning to the Christmas shopping season. For all the hype and bluster of Christmas creep the real serious marketing and buying and selling of Christmas does not really happen until the Thanksgiving turkey is bagged for leftovers.

The tradition of pushing away from the Thanksgiving table to shop really picked up steam in the late 1930s when then president Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a full week, to the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving’s history as a holiday in the United States had originated during the administration of Abraham Lincoln, whose masterful use of language made Thanksgiving indeed about giving thanks as a nation. But the time span between Lincoln and FDR saw the blossoming of Christmas as the commercial high point of the year with Thanksgiving as it’s official kick-start. Roosevelt declared in 1939 that Thanksgiving would be a week earlier not because he was eager to prove his gratitude but rather he intended, during those perilous times of the Great Depression, to extend the Christmas shopping season. Thanksgiving would have been celebrated on November 30th that year if he had stuck with tradition. That would have limited the shopping season to just 24 days. By pushing Thanksgiving back a week he extended the season — and likely made a bigger to-do of Black Friday that year as a result.

Over the course of the decades history has recorded well how Black Friday has been exploited by retailers. But things took a turn for the bizarre when in the 1970s stores started to compete for bragging rights over who could open the earliest.

The tactics used to own the element of surprise and to keep top-secret the specials of the day until the very last minute are legendary. Discounters such as Woolworth’s and department stores like Macy’s used to cover windows and withhold Black Friday ads until Thanksgiving Day — building anticipation over what were sure to be great holiday bargains when the starting gun was sounded. In those days, an early start time might be 9am on Black Friday.

But along came new kinds of discounters. Walmart, Kmart and even home improvement stores like Lowe’s began to crowd in on the action — and they brought with them not only aggressive new pricing and attractive layaway programs but also even earlier start times.

By the 1980s a new tradition had begun of camping outside of retailer’s doors to be the first in line for Black Friday morning. This spurred the ideas of 6am and then 5am openings, as product specials meant limited quantities and fuller stores for one of the longest shopping days of the year.

But with the advent of the Internet that all changed. Online all-the-time meant shoppers could snag bargains even when offline retailers were closed on Thanksgiving Day. As the loss in sales became more pronounced in recent years we have seen a trend for Black Friday to bleed into Thanksgiving Day, with stores before open on a day once held sacred in American retailing.

Instead of hiding ads a whole cottage industry was born of leaking and then exposing retailers Black Friday ads with awards given to those firms who could offer the lowest prices in hot categories such as electronics, toys and clothes.

Pre-Black Friday specials — complete with doorbusters and early morning openings long before Thanksgiving is the new norm. The constant wave of discounts and advertisements has ironically turned Friday — the day after Thanksgiving once known as Black Friday — into a relic of retailing past.

Black Friday is no longer a day — it is a season within the season. It typically starts now right after Halloween and peaks on Cyber Monday, the first work day after the long Thanksgiving weekend. That entire period is marked by retailers clearing inventory, stock piling specials, and announcing “lowest of the season” offerings all in an attempt to draw more holiday shoppers to their door.

So as we countdown to Christmas — 127 days remain now — we practically wave goodbye to Black Friday as a day.

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