The History
The post-Thanksgiving retail season has long been crucial for retailers here in America. Thanksgiving was the final Friday in November until 1939, when FDR changed the date to the fourth Thursday, to the chagrin of many. His hope was to create a lengthier holiday retail shopping season that resulted in greater revenue for merchants—the Great Depression was still ongoing, and the goal was to give a boost to a still struggling economy. While its effect was disputed, it’s a clear sign of how much holiday retail meant even back then.

Black Friday itself becomes the focus around the 1980s. Around then—when retailers embraced the name and tried to spin its meaning (more on that later)—companies began the arms race to offer better deals, circulating fliers in advance, and more. But only around the late 90s and 2000s was the explosion into the modern Black Friday phenomenon—the increasingly early openings, the overnight waiting in line, the news reports on revenue, and so forth.

In fact, Black Friday soon crept into Thanksgiving itself, with many lines starting very early on the day of Thanksgiving and stores often opening at midnight. Eventually, Black Friday Mania hit a peak in the early 2010s. Microsoft gives us a chart of the NRF’s historical numbers: By 2005, the NRF estimates $26.8 billion was spent on Black Friday, but that grew over the next several years until peaking in 2012, when it reached $59.1 billion.

The Name
So, where’s the name come from? As many have previously pointed out, days that are dubbed “Black” often carry sad or morbid associations—it brings to mind days like “Black Tuesday,” when the stock market crashed in 1929. Black Friday does not follow this trend.

Most people have by now heard the familiar explanation that Black Friday comes from the accounting notion of being in the red or the black – in the red means debt, in the black means profit. Thus, it’s Black Friday because with big profits retailers will ensure they’re in the black on the year.

There is still much debate, but this seems to have been a revisionist explanation for a term that originally meant nothing of the sort, according to the New York Times, Visual Thesaurus, and others. Instead, it seems to have been a term commonly used in 1950s Philadelphia by police who dreaded the massive crowds of the day. People descended on the area in preparation for the Army-Navy game—at that time played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Philadelphia—and started their Christmas shopping due to their day off. This was not a fun time for the police, predictably, and they gave it the dreary name. Soon, retailers in Philadelphia took it on, too, and it eventually spread nationwide. In the late 1980s, it seems, retailers wanted to give the name a more positive public-facing spin, and came up with the “revenue” story.

The Future
Spending has dipped slightly since the 2012 peak, and many retailers have now notably begun cutting back on the hours-early openings for more modest times. The reasons behind this are obviously complex, but there are many potential threads. There has been some backlash against the hours, and some retailers have sought positive PR by stopping early openings to allow employees to experience a full day off on Thanksgiving. REI, for instance, closes their stores altogether on Black Friday. The continued rise of online shopping and Cyber Monday, the slow rise of “Christmas Creep” past even Thanksgiving, and more. Additionally, days like Small Business Saturday have diverted sales away from that single day of Black Friday.

As it stands, it remains hard to predict the future. Small Business Saturday has driven a revival in local shopping, and it’s been growing fast. Similarly, brick-and-mortar retailers have become increasingly clever over the past few years about drawing in shoppers. Who knows what this year—let alone future years—will bring for the most famous shopping day of the year, but we’re excited to see. Come back in a couple weeks, and we’ll have Black Friday statistics and insights for you which we pull right from our data and analytics.

Have fun out there—and we hope we see you out there on Black Friday!

​​"Why Is It Called Black Friday?": A Brief History of a Busy Day