The Branding of Black Friday

23 Nov


By  on November 20, 2012


One popular but false explanation is that the name marks the day retailers end an 11-month stretch of red ink and harvest profits for the first time all year. Others say it refers to the dark day thousands of retail workers will spend greeting shoppers, stocking shelves, folding garments, and ringing registers.

In fact, factory owners in the 1950s first coined Black Friday to lament the high number of workers who wouldn’t show up for work, as linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out last year. The connection between Black Friday, crowds, and shopping came in the early 1960s from some Philadelphia cops, he explained. They used the phrase to describe the mad traffic downtown on the day holiday shoppers converged with football fans arriving for the Army-Navy game, traditionally played in Philly on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The name Black Friday, picked up by the press, presented a branding problem from the start. Zimmer quotes a 1961 story from Public Relations News that called the label “hardly a stimulus for good business,” and notes city spinmeister Abe Rosen’s efforts to replace it with the anodyne “Big Friday.” The Philadelphia newspapers refused, and Black Friday stuck.

It’s not exactly clear when, in the decades since, retailers across the country embraced the name. By the time they did, it came with the reassuring myth that Black Friday was the day they turned a profit to be “in the black.” (A quick look at retailers’ quarterly earnings should put that canard to rest.) The retail industry shed any queasiness it had about the Black Friday brand in recent years, as big-box stores and shopping malls embraced “door-buster” sales that got shoppers to line up for discounts before opening time.

Although Black Friday has long been called the busiest shopping day of the year, that’s only become true in the past decade, according to data from retail analyst ShopperTrak. Before 2004, holiday shopping generally peaked on the Saturday before Christmas, the International Council of Shopping Centers reported (PDF). But after enough years of  retailers and reporters and shoppers repeating that Black Friday was the busiest day, the myth eventually became true.

More recently, the hoopla has spread throughout the week. Cyber Monday was invented in 2005 by the National Retail Federation’s digital division in an attempt to promote online shopping when office workers get back to their desks after the holiday; it was not the highest volume day for e-commerce sales. In 2010, American Express (AXP) made up Small Business Saturday, with promotions and rebates aimed at getting gift-seekers to swipe their AmEx cards at local merchants’ shops. Note to retailers: Three days of Thanksgiving week remain unbranded. Or four, if Thanksgiving itself is not off limits.

And, of course, it’s not. Black Friday has been creeping earlier, from dawn to midnight to Thursday evening. Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) plans to open its doors on Thanksgiving day at 8 p.m. this year, two hours earlier than last year, a decision that’s helped provoke some workers to strike. Perhaps the earlier hour is an attempt to avoid the sometimes unruly crowds that door-buster sales attract. Last year, a Wal-Mart shopper in California reportedly pepper-sprayed fellow customers to reach coveted merchandise. But even that’s not Black Friday’s darkest moment: In 2008, Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old Queens man who took a seasonal job at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y, was killed when a pre-dawn Black Friday mob broke the glass doors and trampled him to death.

Long before such deadly excess, some activists seized the symbolism of Black Friday to make people think twice about consumer culture. Since the 1990s, the day after Thanksgiving has also been dubbed Buy Nothing Day, an idea championed by Adbusters magazine and, lately, the Occupy movement. The thought of getting masses of consumers to stay home on what has become the biggest shopping day of the year may sound like a pipe dream. But Black Friday only holds its current place in our culture through miracles of marketing, spin, and rebranding. Those celebrating Buy Nothing Day, at least, don’t have to explain the name.

Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

Posted by on November 23, 2012 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “The Branding of Black Friday

  1. countrygirl895

    November 24, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    It was bound to happen and this year it did. People who go Black Friday shopping have begun setting out earlier and earlier for the “best” deals of the holiday season. What should have remained untouched (Thanksgiving Day) has now become a day filled with strategy talk, ad flipping through, and leaving grandma’s early to get a better spot in line. Black Friday, a name I never thought to think about, does give off a negative feeling. Changing it, though, would not be well received. It’s the name of a holiday in its own right, now, and switching that simply wouldn’t fly. Businesses thrive on this day and in its own way it does bring shoppers together. Who else are you going to talk to at Walmart at 2am?

  2. tex2524

    November 27, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    I don’t agree with the decision to open some stores earlier this year. Is a 2 hour difference as it said in the article(Walmart opening at 8 instead of 10) really effect sales that drastically? Now you are making people even more obsessed with getting a good spot in line to acquire their coveted goods, and you are taking even more time away from the employees with their families. Consumers may have even abandoned thanksgiving time with their families to put themselves in a better posisition to acquire their precious good deals and prices. Black Friday is indeed a holiday in itself, I believe changing the name would not affect the success of the event though. People will still do whatever it takes to take advantage of these “spectactular” deals regardless of the name of the day.


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