Black Friday Goes Gray

The post-holiday shopping day was never as significant as everyone said

Media outlets of every stripe have already been buzzing about Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving and, anecdotally at least, the busiest shopping day of the year. For as long as anyone can remember, the day has been a marker for judging how retailers will fare for the fiscal year and a temperature reading for the economy as a whole.

Too bad it’s also a lot of hype. For the record, not only is Black Friday not the busiest shopping day of the year (that would be Dec. 24), but its value is also largely symbolic.

“In general, Black Friday is overrated,” says Robert Spector, a retail historian and the author of Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and Its Impact on Consumer Culture. “Retailers use it to create a sense of excitement to get you to come in. But does it signal whether business is really up or down? I don’t think so.”

How’d we get all whipped up about this day anyway? Historically, Americans have always started their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving, but nobody paid much attention to the “official” start of holiday shopping until 1939, when President Roosevelt, responding to the concerns of worried retailers, moved Thanksgiving up a week to add an extra seven days to what had been a 24-day season.

The all-important Friday would not get its “Black” prefix until 1966, when (the story goes) the Philadelphia Police Department coined the term to describe the traffic jams downtown that resulted from people stampeding to the sales many stores were offering.

That story could well be apocryphal—but the same could be said of the more widely accepted version. According to that one, because of the tight profit margins in retail, many brands historically operated in the red until holiday traffic brought the revenue surge necessary to switch to black ink in the old accounting ledgers—hence, “Black Friday.” Cute, right?

Regardless of how it got its name, Black Friday is not without some import. Last year, it brought out 212 million shoppers who dropped $45 billion. But the day’s significance is fading very quickly—especially in light of “Cyber Monday” and the onslaught of “Pre-Black Friday” sales that keep moving the starting line further back each year.

“I call it the graying of Black Friday,” says retail analyst Marshal Cohen of the NPD Group. “The advent of the Web has caused the tradition of day-after-Thanksgiving shopping to change dramatically.” In the best of times, Cohen says, Black Friday accounted for 10 percent of a retailer’s sales. Now, it’s more like 7 percent or 8 percent, and that number will keep falling.

“Black Friday’s importance,” Cohen says, “has gotten less important.”