Thoughts on the tradition of Black Friday

Today is the day that has come to be known as Black Friday, the Friday after the fourth Thursday in November (American Thanksgiving), which has come to be known at least symbolically as the first shopping day of the holiday season. Curiously, it has held this distinction even as some stores have began decorating for the winter holidays earlier than Thanksgiving.

Among one of the more interesting recent developments, REI has chosen to close the doors of its retail outlets, and even urging customers to go outside instead with the #optoutside campaign. I see this as quite the bold and commendable move, and may well be the lead in an inevitable wave of backlash against the Black Friday tradition.

Now, I’m not against Black Friday by any means, but the reality is that many shoppers are seeing Black Friday for what it is: consumerism for the sake of consumerism, and in many cases, marketing for the sake of marketing. Like anyone with an interest in the profession, I admire good marketing, but I just can’t shake the thought that Black Friday as a marketing/sales tool has run its course.

Part of what is starting to kill Black Friday is the decision of many retailers, for better or worse, to open for part of Thanksgiving (typically from 6pm or so) when they would not in years past (the so-called “Gray Thursday”). The backlash from this has grown each year, with many refusing to shop on Thanksgiving in protest. Part of the backlash is due to retailers not giving employees the option to freely opt out of working on a holiday. While I can understand the retailers not wanting to do this, the effects of the bad PR will often more than offset whatever sales totals come up for a holiday. There was a time when a store opening on a holiday was a flagrant taboo, something that Just Wasn’t Done. We’ve changed to a 24-hour society, where even on a holiday there are things that need to be done, and things happen like running out of aluminum foil or Aunt Ethel’s favorite diet soda on Thanksgiving morning.

The reality of it is, I don’t see Black Friday going anywhere soon. The actual term for the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush has been with us for a good four decades. Even with Christmas creep, it will take a lot to fully take down this tradition; in fact, it may be the key to ending “Christmas creep” which I personally think is much worse than one day of flagrant consumerism and marketing. Yes, Nordstrom is on to something by refusing to decorate for Christmas until after Thanksgiving, and I wish more stores would follow Nordstrom’s lead. It’s bad enough when Halloween items are out in early September, right after the back-to-school promotions conclude.

Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and holiday shopping

I’m not going to cite a specific news article for this post, because the news on this one is rather widespread and should easily be found. There has been a huge controversy over the past couple of weeks about retailers starting their Black Friday sales as early as 8pm Thanksgiving Day, effectively cutting into their employees’ Thanksgiving dinner time and complicating any travel plans they may have had to visit family in other cities.

This wouldn’t be so bad except for one thing. I, personally, have noticed a trend in recent years for seasonal merchandise to be out earlier and earlier. The Halloween season starts not all that long after Labor Day in September, and the Christmas/Yule merchandise is already out the first week of November. I’m all for marketing, in general, but it’s no secret that retailers profit handily during the Christmas/Yule shopping season and the greed inherent in promoting the season a whole two months in advance is quite palpable.

It comes down to basic economics. The retailers will not start Black “Friday” sales as far back as Thursday evening, or even Friday at midnight, if the demand isn’t there. It only takes one time for a retailer’s management to get burned by unnecessary labor costs on top of the headache of finding employees willing to blow off their Thanksgiving dinner to work (which, even in retail, is not quite as easy as it sounds), to realize they made a mistake. Hitting a retailer’s bottom line will make a much more profound and meaningful statement than a petition ever will. On the other hand, as long as there are enough people attending the early Black “Friday” sales the evening of Thanksgiving Day, they’ll be here to stay. Again, it’s all about supply and demand.