I got my first email containing the words "Black Friday" in April. "Black Friday was a bit of a disaster for us (unsure why we expected otherwise) and we said we'd make it up to you in the near future," wrote the cult beauty brand Deciem, whose 2018 Black Friday sale entirely sold out before Thanksgiving Day was even over. The apologetic notice was being sent to customers in promotion of ... another sale.
I love a good deal just like anybody else, but the words "Black Friday" have become increasingly meaningless. Today is Nov. 20 — still over a week out from this year's later-than-usual Black Friday — and I'm inundated with emails announcing sales. Fabletics, a popular subscription activewear retailer, has emailed me every day since Nov. 13 to promote their "Black Friday Month" savings.
And it's not just my inbox that is out of control. At some point Black Friday morphed into Gray November, and now it's bleeding into the rest of the year as well.
Since even before the invention of malls, shoppers have flocked to stores in the days immediately following Thanksgiving to cash in on big holiday savings. While there are a lot of misconceptions out there about the so-called holiday's name, the phrase "Black Friday" derives neither from retailers getting "into the black," nor has anything to do with slavery. Rather, it was originally a derogatory reference to the smog and exhaust that filled the streets of Philadelphia in the 1950s when people would pour into town to get a headstart on their shopping. The name stuck, even if the date wouldn't.
Still, for awhile anyway, Black Friday was confined to just that: Friday. It might not have been the biggest shopping day of the year (procrastinators have long ensured that the days just before Christmas remain the actual busiest for retail), but it was at least a one-and-done.
Then along came the internet.
The phrase "Cyber Monday" was officially coined in 2005. "[M]illions of productive Americans, fresh off a weekend at the mall, are expected to return to work and their high-speed internet connections on Nov. 28 and spend the day buying what they liked in all those stores," The New York Times wrote of the new curisoity. By 2018, when Americans no longer needed to go into the office to poach internet, Cyber Monday sales hit $7.9 billion, marking the biggest U.S. e-commerce day ever. Still, the concept of Cyber Monday is almost quaintly outdated; in 2017, the National Retail Foundation said 58 million people shopped exclusively online on Black Friday anyway, over the 51 million people who shopped only in stores.
But there is apparently just something irresistibly catchy to Americans about named shopping days. In 2010, "in the midst of the recession," American Express launched (and branded) Small Business Saturday "to encourage people to Shop Small and bring more holiday shopping to small businesses." Subsequently in 2012, 92nd Street Y in partnership with the United Nations Foundation proposed Giving Tuesday to counter consumerism and "build a more just and generous world." Only a few years into this decade, and Black Friday had already fully blossomed from a one-day event into a whole weekend of mandated spending.
While all this was going on, Black Friday itself was also winding its door-busting tentacles into the wee hours of Thanksgiving. In 2008, Macy's, Walmart, and Target still opened during the predawn hours of Friday, but by 2010, a number of national retailers, including Sears, began to open on Thanksgiving proper, while Walmart and others opened at midnight. Then in 2011, Walmart crept even earlier, opening at 10 p.m. the night before Black Friday. Today, Macy's, Walmart, and Target all open well before Black Friday even begins:
The floodgates have opened. Black Friday is now a week-long event, with stores hawking deals leading up to the big day itself. In 2017, Racked published an investigation into how Target "tackles a 'Black Friday' that is 10 days long." "It's now Black November," is how Marshal Cohen, the head retail analyst with the NPD Group, put it to The Boston Globe in 2017, the same year that a National Retail Foundation survey found 56 percent of respondents planned to start holiday shopping before Thanksgiving.
But Black Friday is cannibalizing itself; in-store sales have actually dropped day-of in recent years. "We know that opening on Thanksgiving Day was merely pulling shopping visits from Black Friday, as opposed to creating an additional opportunity for shoppers to hit the stores," Brian Field of the retail tracking firm ShopperTrak told CNBC. With so many deals online, there is less reason for sales to be confined to one specific day, anyway. Last year, a Houston resident described his continued visits to brick-and-mortar stores on Black Friday as being driven primarily by "nostalgia."
Not even October is safe from Black Friday anymore. In 2017, holiday deals started around Nov. 8; by 2018, they had jumped a week earlier to Nov. 1, Wirecutter reported this fall. Walmart this year posted its Black Friday deals before Halloween. Additionally, in order to compete with Amazon's annual Prime Day sale in the summer, a number of major retailers have unforgivably begun to promote "Black Friday in July" deals as well. The result has sucked the urgency out of Black Friday proper: "It's ubiquitous," Barbara Bickart of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business told the Globe. "You can buy any time, and that makes Black Friday less of an experience."
Black Friday has become so enormous and out-of-control that the new trend is for retailers to reject it entirely. Citing the transformation of the holidays into a capitalist extravaganza that encroaches on people's time with their families, a number of retailers remain closed on Thanksgiving as a thanks to their employees and to avoid luring shoppers away from drinking eggnog with that cousin they don't really like but only see once a year. Outdoor retailer REI in particular has led the way, launching its #OptOutside initiative in 2015 and giving all its employees Black Friday off to enjoy the natural world.
Deciem, surprisingly, is also among those to boycott Black Friday this year, with the brand's website and stores going dark on Nov. 29. "Feeling that Black Friday is no longer a consumer or Earth-friendly event, Deciem has found an alternative way to bring savings to its audience," the company reassured. Instead, this year Deciem will encourage customers to embrace "shopping slowly." Its sale is running for the entire month of November.
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