Almost 85 million shoppers. That’s how many people poured into retail stores across the United States on Black Friday 2019. Americans everywhere barreled into department stores to snatch up the best deals like lions taking down prey in the single busiest shopping day of the year.
Indeed, it may have been the busiest shopping day ever, given that Black Friday 2022 is likely to be less chaotic than prior years because retailers are starting to stretch out the deal season.
But just because in-person shopping might be on the slight decline in the post-pandemic world, don’t think for a second that Black Friday shopping won’t be chaotic. When shoppers shopped in 2019, they completed 52% of their holiday shopping on that day alone, buying around $500 of merchandise. We could see close to 80 million shoppers swarm retail stores on that day, each packing a full cart.
It’s a strange ritual, isn’t it? It seems out of place in a world where we can order everything online. Conspicuous consumption is getting a bad reputation for its effects on the environment. Plus, because of the Great Resignation, workers have been leaving jobs in droves to seek out something better – a fact which clashes with the notoriously tough working conditions of the Black Friday weekend.
In other words, Black Friday can feel, to some, like a relic of the past. It made sense in 1997, when Jingle All The Way came out and showed Arnold Schwarzenegger pushing Minnesota mall moms aside to buy a Turbo Man doll. But now we have Amazon and an infinite array of Shopify and Etsy stores to choose from.
Why do we still do this to ourselves?
Well, to answer that, we need to talk about how Black Friday sales started in the first place.
When did Black Friday start?
Black Friday is a thoroughly modern tradition, with the earliest known use in 1951 in the journal, Factory Management and Maintenance. Sure, “Black Friday” has been used in other contexts, such as the Panic of 1869, but that’s not what people are referring to when they talk about Black Friday, the annual sales bonanza.
It was right around the early 1950s that certain Philadelphia department stores were starting to do aggressively discounted sales. This brought in some big crowds and was worrisome for the police who had trouble maintaining public order. However, at this point in our history, Black Friday wasn’t even a regional phenomenon – it was just a handful of stores.
According to the History Channel, it took a full decade for Black Friday to really catch on city-wide. It remained a regional phenomenon for a while, although more retailers started to emulate the sales on their own throughout the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.
Black Friday didn’t become a major shopping holiday until the 1980s at the earliest.
It was only in the mid-1980s, likely 1985 specifically, that Black Friday caught on countrywide. What’s interesting is that Black Friday, as it was coined by Factory Management and Maintenance was not a positive thing. It was meant to be a scary name to denote the riotous conditions of having too many shoppers milling about in one place at the same time.
But big companies did what big companies do, and they rebranded the whole holiday. That’s when Black Friday started to be pitched as “the day that retailers went from being in the red to being in the black.” Oddly enough, this caught on so well that it’s the only version of the story that I personally heard – and I got all the way through undergraduate and graduate school for business – up until this day. We all just collectively forgot that the name was an insult because the corporate rebranding was so successful.
When you look back at TV and movies from the late 1980s and 1990s, you should realize that any griping about Black Friday is like us griping about people being on their phones all the time today. It was a distinctly modern response to a very new social issue that had just arisen. Everybody loves a good deal, sure, but the nationwide spectacle of people just flooding into stores, pushing and shoving each other is recent. If you’re reading this and you’re 25 years old, this was not happening when your parents were born.
Black Friday didn’t become a violent mess until the mid-2000s.
Of course, Black Friday was still a comparatively restrained affair until recently. I referenced Jingle All The Way earlier, which is a 1997 movie about Christmas Eve shopping. It was a ridiculous parody of the concept, with the violence being for comedic effect. It was funny because so much of it was unthinkable.
But in the mid-2000s, Black Friday was starting to regularly become a source of serious violence. Not just pushing and shoving and general rudeness, mind you, but very real and grievous violence. In 2008, a Walmart employee was trampled to death. In 2010, a woman threatened to shoot shoppers at a Toys ‘R’ Us. There was a stabbing in a Georgia toy store that same year.
And this is just what I’ve found on a quick Wikipedia search. This list goes on for a long time too. Shootings. Stabbings. Lacerations and bruises and dislocated joints. The point is, I’m not even having to dig or cherry-pick to make my point – there are more examples than I could possibly ever list in an article that people would be willing to read to completion.
In the early 2010s, Black Friday started to creep into Thanksgiving.
Somehow, despite all this, Black Friday was still relatively sedate in the 2000s. The shopping frenzy was still confined to Friday itself. The modern problem of Black Friday creeping into Thanksgiving had not yet begun. Stores might open at 6 or 7 am, but that’s not terribly unusual.
Then in 2010, Sears opened on Thanksgiving Day. Then Walmart and Kohl’s did the same in 2011, followed by Target in 2012. Black Friday used to begin at 6 am, but it got pushed back to 4 am, then midnight, and then eventually the late hours of Thanksgiving.
Fun fact: I worked in a Belk during the Black Friday of 2011 and we opened at midnight. Other workers complained that the previous year – meaning 2010, they didn’t open until early morning Friday. This phenomenon is so recent that it started while I was working a college job. I am not even 30 yet.
Eventually, businesses that stayed closed on Thanksgiving became the weird ones. You would sometimes even hear stores referring to Thanksgiving – the day of being grateful for the good fortune you have – as “Black Thursday.”
Now the future of Black Friday is uncertain, and it’s not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Black Friday sales continued to soar throughout the entire decade of the 2010s, performing better year over year. But, of course, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of being in a massive crowd became a very frightening concept. After all, it is through large crowds that this novel virus spreads.
Well, that didn’t stop people.
In 2020 and 2021, Black Friday sales kept going. The pandemic was continuing to rip the United States at an unbelievable pace in November 2021, and yet foot traffic in retail stores remained at 72% of its 2019 levels. The risk of death is not enough to keep people from getting deals.
But that is still a big drop. Black Friday is in a weird spot right now, at least partly because we’re figuring out where it fits into a post-COVID society.
Ecommerce might make Black Friday irrelevant.
Now it is very possible that we will continue to have Black Friday shopping like nothing ever happened. But it is also possible that we could see the in-person retail aspect of the holiday slowly fade out over decades to come. After all, this tradition is less than 40 years old in its modern iteration – there’s no reason why it can’t fade away in the same amount of time.
There are a few reasons for this. First of all, eCommerce is continuing to boom. That means people can simply buy more items online. The pandemic got a lot of hesitant shoppers to start using online shopping more heavily, and some of those folks are not going back to their old habits.
Retailers have been spreading out discounts to avoid running out of stock.
Another piece of the puzzle is that retailers have started spreading out discounts to keep sales revenue high. Between the pandemic and the supply chain disruptions, it’s hard to justify having people swarm a store like locusts, take everything, and be stuck waiting for weeks on a resupply. That’s why some retailers have started having Christmas sales as soon as October as a form of inventory control.
It takes a tremendous amount of effort to forecast how many items will be needed for a single day of massive sales. Then it takes even more tremendous effort to get those items into the right place, properly stocked, and ready to be picked up by your local middle class fancy customers named Karen. A lot of stores are starting to question the wisdom of participating in Black Friday for this reason – it’s just really hard to deal with from a process and labor standpoint.
Workers are pushing back.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the Great Resignation. That is to say, a lot of workers have quit their unsatisfying jobs because the conditions of the labor market make it possible for them to do so. That’s why you hear these bizarre and exaggerated narratives of Gen Z kids telling their bosses to screw themselves.
But honestly, it makes a lot of sense. Workers have been getting pushed around since at least the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Wages haven’t been keeping up with inflation, let alone economic growth for decades on end. Somehow, in the 2010s, it had become common to say in interviews that “I’m just really on-board with the corporate mission of Wendy’s and desperately want to be a line cook.”
Then after a worker debases themself to get a job for $9 an hour when rent is $1,500 for a one-bed apartment, entitled customers heap scorn and hatred upon them!
Look, I’m not a revolutionary or a socialist or anything like that. But this is just nuts.
The pandemic seemed to show everyone how burned out and exhausted they were, and when you combine this with the absurdity of working retail on Black Friday, well…a lot of companies are just having trouble finding the staff. You can’t have a Black Friday sale if no one’s working the registers.
In writing this post, I fear that it might feel a bit too curmudgeonly. A bit too “we live in a society.” And yet I feel when you speak of people trampling one another for $20 off a blender, there’s no way to tell a open-eyed, honest story without being that way. It’s just one of those facts about our society that in a thousand years is going to sound as bizarre as the (possibly apocryphal) idea of Romans eating massive meals, throwing up, and then eating more.
To be clear, my issue is not with abundance. Abundance is a truly beautiful thing when everyone is taken care of. My issue is with the violence and the callousness of modern Black Friday shopping. I can even live with the crowds. I’m a card-carrying Costco boy and I love a good deal!
Moral grandstanding aside, though, Black Friday as a cultural phenomenon really does appear to be at a crossroads. We’re about to have the first true Black Friday in three years, as many people consider the pandemic to be over now. But with the growth of eCommerce, all these supply chain issues, all these labor issues, and the fact that retailers are voluntarily spreading out sale days…Black Friday may never return to what it was in 2019. The future is just incredibly uncertain.
Do I believe Black Friday will disappear within a decade’s time? No. But when we tell our grandkids about the packed malls, they may one day look at us the same way we do when our own grandparents tell us that hamburgers used to cost 15 cents.