Eric Wilson

Now You Know: The Backstory Behind Black Friday

Now You Know: The Backstory Behind Black Friday
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Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one easy read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now. Enjoy!

Pictured, above: People crowd the first floor of New York's Macy's department store at midnight on November 23, 2012 to start the store's Black Friday shopping weekend.

Growing up, I thought Black Friday was a day of remembrance for some horrid plague, massacre or stock market crash that was so dreadful as to require a name that would send shivers down the spine. It sounded so bleak. Little did I know it was in honor of America’s favorite Thanksgiving weekend pastime—shopping. Or second favorite, depending on your taste for football.

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Back in those ancient times before door-busting specials, long before stores even considered opening their doors on Turkey Thursday, Black Friday was so mysterious because it was typically only mentioned by retail professionals and financial analysts in the business section of the newspaper. That’s because the day after Thanksgiving traditionally marked the beginning of the old-fashioned holiday shopping season. Sales were so big on that day that most big retailers officially turned a profit for the year, and in accounting terms, that meant their legers swung from the red column “into the black.”

While the term originally had a negative connotation during its early use as related to shopping—in the 1950s, it became a term the local police in Philadelphia conjured up while dealing with unruly customers, traffic jams and crowded stores—it eventually caught on as a marketing term. Savvy retailers began using the occasion to promote their biggest sales of the season, with gusto beginning in the 1970s and '80s.

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Naturally, as with all good things, we as a society do tend to blow a sale out of proportion, turning Black Friday into a commercial bacchanal that has grown so ridiculously overheated that diehard bargain hunters still manage to line up outside stores overnight. Meanwhile, the evolution of online shopping led to the advent of Cyber Monday a decade ago, when people returning to their offices following the holiday weekend order gifts from their desks while pretending to work. Then there was Small Business Saturday, brought to you by American Express, and now, #GivingTuesday, a social media-friendly day of giving back after giving so much to ourselves.

To a small degree, Black Friday has become a less important event to retailers, though the holiday shopping season overall remains critical to their success. Numerous studies have shown that Black Friday promotions are not necessarily the best deals, and customers have caught on. And now that several stores are open on Thanksgiving day – looking to undercut their competition even by a few hours – before long we’ll be talking about Black Thursday.

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