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The rise and fall of Black Friday

Long before the Halloween candy turns stale, the United States turns its attention to Thanksgiving. And for many retailers, Thanksgiving is more accurately thought of as Black Friday Eve.


Liza Mock

Tue Nov 16 2021 • 4 min read

The rise and fall of Black Friday

In 2020, the pandemic changed everything and few traditions were hit harder than Black Friday. Let’s take a short walk through the history of the day.

How did Black Friday get its name?

The popular origin story of the term “Black Friday” claims that once upon a time so many Americans flooded shopping districts and malls the day after Thanksgiving that it put retailers in the black for the rest of the year. It’s a plausible tale, but as it turns out, is nothing more than an attempt by retailers to put a positive spin on the day.

As you likely know, dubbing a day “black” is typically a reference to doom and gloom as was the case with Black Monday, the day in 1987 when the Dow Jones plummeted, losing 22% of its value in a single trading session. In truth, Black Friday’s true origins have little to do with getting retailers out of the red. The first known use of the term was in 1869 when the bottom fell out of gold prices after two scallywags attempted to corner the gold market - but that’s a story for another time.

The modern usage of the term – in reference to shopping fervor the day after Thanksgiving – existed among traffic cops in Philadelphia in the early 1950s. The term was popularized by Joseph Barret, a police reporter and feature writer for the Philadelphia Bulletin, who wrote a front page story where “we appropriated the police term ‘Black Friday’ to describe the terrible traffic conditions” in downtown Philly the day after Thanksgiving.

One final note of interest is that the term appeared in a 1951 issue the trade magazine Factory Management and Maintenance in reference to worker absenteeism on factory floors the day after Thanksgiving with this hilariously hyperbolic description:

“‘Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis’ is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that’s the feeling of those who have to get production out, when “Black Friday” comes along.” As anyone who’s running a business (especially these days) knows, staffing shortages are a grave concern, but comparing them to the “bubonic plague” seems a little over the top.

Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, Black Friday is a phenomenon that’s grown too big to ignore. So let’s talk about what we can expect this year. While 2020 had a dramatic effect on the day, with many retailers opting not to open their physical stores to shoppers, the truth is that the online version - Cyber Monday has been competing with Black Friday for a number of years now. According to the’s Shopping and Spending Survey, in 2020, 30% of consumers said they planned to shop Cyber Monday sales compared to only 24% who planned to shop on Black Friday. And from 2016 to 2020 online spending on Black Friday has risen each year by over 19% per year on average.

When does Black Friday actually start?

Recent trends show that retailers are stretching out their Black Friday deals. For instance, both Target and Home Depot dropped their first Black Friday ad campaigns in October, according to Another trend expected to continue is widespread online shopping on Thanksgiving day itself when stores are traditionally closed, but online deals are available. Before that tryptophan coma hits, expect online orders to be coming in fast.

And, if your clientele responds to socially conscious promotions, don’t forget Giving Tuesday. The brainchild of Henry Timms at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Giving Tuesday launched in 2012 as a way to turn the rampant consumerism of Cyber Monday into a more altruistic goal. While donations have steadily grown, 2020 was the biggest year yet raising $2.47 billion in the United States alone, and a 25% increase over 2019. Picking a local non-profit and promising to donate portions of sales on Giving Tuesday is a great way to show your patrons that you care.

How to prepare your business for Black Friday

When it comes to Black Friday itself, you can keep your staff and your customers safe with help from Waitwhile. You can use it to limit the number of people in-store and get rid of physical lines of customers waiting to get in. Relying on an electronic queue can help ensure a steady flow of shoppers without forcing anyone to get too far out of their comfort zone. Black Friday isn’t usually associated with order, but Waitwhile makes it possible to alleviate the mad rush of deal seekers without alienating your customers.  

With Waitwhile, brick-and-mortar shops can offer a more personalized alternative to Cyber Monday. Use it to set up in-store or virtual appointments for your guests, guaranteeing them time with a sales person of their choice. Then take advantage of built-in 2-way messaging to set up a line of communication with your shoppers so you can message them about special deals, thank them for their business, or ask for a review. If you sell out of a popular item, instead of just turning them away disappointed, you’ll be able to follow up with a notification when the item is available again.

However you and your business choose to engage with shoppers for the holidays, we wish you a safe, healthy, and high volume season. And don’t forget that while getting “in the black” is a big deal for all businesses, getting to spend time with family and friends, especially after the last 18 months of isolation, is the best gift on any list this year. Happy holidays!

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