Black Friday is the first shopping day after Thanksgiving. But how did this notorious day of discounts get its name? Many people think the name relates to being ‘in the black’, instead of being ‘in the red’ – that is, being in profit, rather than being overdrawn. The traditional explanation is that the day after Thanksgiving is the time each year when most retailers finally show a profit, and that sales from that day until the end of the year are all extra income.
However, the real reason Black Friday is called what it is, is because of the trouble associated with the day. Because so many people go out to shop in their cars, it often leads to high levels of traffic accidents and even occasional violence. Here’s the full story…
Black Friday might seem like a modern phenomenon, but actually, the first Black Friday was probably way back in the late 19th Century, when President Lincoln first designated the Thanksgiving holiday as the last Thursday in November. However, it was not named ‘Black Friday’ for at least another half century. The name can be traced to Philadelphia. In the 1960s, Philadelphians dreaded the day after Thanksgiving, because their city was flooded with tourists and shoppers from nearby suburbs ahead of the big Army-Navy football game. The massive influx in people and traffic lead to havoc in the city, and meant that police officers had to work extra-long shifts on the day to protect shops from the less reputable visitors, who were unfortunately tempted to take advantage of the huge crowds by shoplifting merchandise.
A similar naming story comes from 1966, when a man called Earl Apfelbaum, a dealer in rare stamps, said in an advert, “‘Black Friday’ is the name that the Philadelphia Police Department gave to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment for them. ‘Black Friday’ officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.”
Interestingly, Philadelphia ‘the city’, actually tried to rename Black Friday to Big Friday as an attempt to remove the negative connotations, but the rebranding exercise largely fell on deaf ears and the new name did not stick.
Of course, as you can imagine, brands did not much like the idea of one of their biggest and most important retail days of the year having such negative connotations. For example, other ‘black’ days include Black Monday, when the Dow Jones Average fell by a disastrous 22% in October 1987. Similarly, Black Thursday (which occurred on October 24th 1929) is the day that is often referred to as the start of the Great Depression (followed by Black Tuesday the next week, when the stock market dropped by 11% despite many major investors doing what they could to support stock prices). It was not until the late 1980’s that brands and businesses managed to successfully rebrand ‘Black Friday’ so that it became associated with profits rather than violence and economic collapse. The term quickly spread around the country and the now formerly negative concept has been reformulated into the bargain-shopping bonanza of today – although many still have a love-hate relationship with the event.
Unfortunately, the original meaning of the name still holds some meaning today. Every year, we hear new stories about consumer violence and shopping-related injuries. One of the worst of these occurred in 2013, when Jdimytai Damour – a temporary security guard at Walmart in Valley Stream, New York – was crushed to death as a stampede of shoppers pushed to get a mega deal on a flat screen TV. In 2011, a woman took the radical decision to spray competing shoppers with pepper spray in a WalMart in Los Angeles in pursuit of a heavily discounted Xbox. The young lady was not charged because she claimed she used the spray in self-defence against shoppers who were attacking her children to get the gaming device – and there was not enough evidence to prove otherwise! So far, the number of reported deaths as a direct result of Black Friday is seven.
To overcome this stigma, companies started to use the name to reflect their financial success. As mentioned above, accountants typically use the colour black to indicate profit when recording income and loss – if you are ‘in the black’, that means you do not owe any money. Black Friday is meant to be profitable for both business and shoppers – while also stimulating the economy and keeping everyone in the black.
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