Getting Back to Black Friday

Creighton Abrams

It’s generally understood that “Black Friday” is the day after Thanksgiving – the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season and when consumer retail firms begin their path to profitability. The motif of “black” is easy to grasp as, historically, when pens were used to record debits and credits in a ledger, red ink indicated deficit and black ink was profit. Hence, Black (profitable) Friday was thought of as the biggest shopping day of the year.

For all the attention given to Black Friday, it is not the biggest shopping day of the year despite the promotions and discounts offered to lure shoppers into stores. The biggest shopping day of the year varies year to year, with Christmas Eve, the last Saturday before Christmas, and the first Saturday after Thanksgiving among the contenders. The number of days between Thanksgiving and Christmas influences shopping patterns. (In fact, in December 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday in November rather than the last, bowing to pressure from the National Retail Dry Goods Association, which was hoping for a longer shopping season.)

At least, that was the Christmas shopping season before the rise of online shopping. For the past few years, in-store shopping fell by the wayside as online shopping gained traction. Not only do fewer people go to stores to shop, but they shop online in a far more spread-out time frame which tends to diminish the biggest shopping day of the year. More recently, the pandemic accelerated this trend, with particularly disastrous results for malls.

Online shopping brought the mall to the computer and smart phone, and the pandemic encouraged and sometimes required people to stay in their homes. Numerous brand retail stores went into bankruptcy or were forced to close altogether because of the pandemic.

Not the happiest of Christmas stories but there is hope. As painful as the shakeout of retail was, and is, there has been a renewed effort to “shop local.” Doing so during the Christmas season has gotten a boost with “Shop Local Saturday,” a program introduced by American Express in 2010. There are a multitude of reasons that shoppers across the globe would want to support local businesses, including sustainability, unique products, and the fact that local business owners provide local jobs while adding to the tax base.

Beyond the rationale for shopping local, there may be another element at play – the so-called “magic of Christmas” for lack of a better term. Nothing quite matches the experience of in-person shopping, thanks to touch, smell, and sound, as well as the je ne sais quoi of mingling with others in joyous celebration of what is, for many, the most special time of the year.

How sustainable the shop-local movement will be is debatable. Thus retailers are wise to be cautious with expansion plans. But there does appear to be a desire to ‘get out and shop’ from the average consumer. With any luck, Black Friday will be more than click and order.