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How Retail Arrived at Black Friday 2017

For many years now, the day after Thanksgiving has been full of doorbuster deals. With Black Friday 2017 just days away, it’s only natural to look back and figure out where exactly this retail holiday came from.

But the advent and widespread use of eCommerce really changed the way retailers approach the holiday. Shoppers can now checkout from their couches, without having to get the family bundled up at 3am. This is certainly a boon for retailers of all sizes. The next big wave to change Black Friday was the lengthening of the promotional calendar—making Black Friday into “Black November.”  

As competition grew fierce and perceived discounts got deeper than ever, REI stood out from the promotional crowd and decided to close its doors for the day to promote outdoor exploration. While, at first, it seemed a bit rogue, it paid off big time and ignited a multi-year marketing campaign that resonates deeply with their customers.  

Black Friday has taken many different forms and it looks a bit different now than when it started. Let’s discuss the history and how we arrived at the current iteration: Black Friday 2017.  


The First Black Friday 

Before Black Friday came Thanksgiving, of course. This iconic holiday was started in 1789 and had its fourth-Thursday-in-November identity cemented in 1941. Over time, US workers started calling in sick the following Friday, leading some frustrated employers to finally make it a paid holiday as well. This gave consumers a free day to take advantage of retail sales, this time without having to dodge their colleagues who were also conveniently “sick.” Retailers seized the opportunity to sell to this captive audience and jumpstart the holiday shopping season. 

While “Black Friday” was first used to describe a major US market crash in 1869, it wasn’t until 1985 that it was adapted for widespread retail purposes. Initially, the Philadelphia Police Department used it to describe fighting and stealing that broke out between deal-seekers in the downtown shopping area in the 1950s and 60s. This contentious day was on the heels of a rivalry football game that happened the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which required extra Philadelphia cops on the streets. The day had a bad rap for years and rebranding it didn’t go well. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that the name was reclaimed by retailers who wanted to turn its image around.  

They choose to harken back to the imagery of retailers recording profits and losses in ink when red represented loses and black was for profits. While this shopping holiday wasn’t exactly the day when all retailers start to turn a profit, it was a fitting name and started to evoke positive images of deals and beginning the holiday season for once. That story stuck, even though it isn’t exactly where “Black Friday” came from.   

This is an image of an open sign on a retail shop's door.

Modern Day Black Friday 

Over time, the surrounding days were named as well, from Cyber Monday to Small Business Saturday, to the newly minted “Sofa Sunday” (which might take some time to catch on.) Eventually, Black Friday was the beginning of the holiday season in name only. Retailers realized that shoppers were researching and buying gifts earlier (hello, layaway!), so of course they took advantage of this and offered promotions earlier in the season.    

“Promote it and they will come?” This must have been the thought process and an effective one, at that. Black Friday deals extended back to Thanksgiving night, to Thanksgiving afternoon, and eventually to days and weeks before. The day itself all but lost its meaning and for a good reason. After all, with retail in such a rocky place lately, offering spread out and targeted promotions seemed like a much better plan than putting all of a retailer’s eggs in one basket.  

The National Retail Federation states that the holiday shopping season can bring in up to 30 percent of a retailer’s annual sales. In terms of 2016, November and December sales accounted for almost 20 percent of yearly sales across the entire retail industry. In addition, Visa found that Black Friday through Cyber Monday accounted for 9.1 percent of all holiday sales, with Black Friday bringing in the highest percentage of sales of any day during the holiday shopping season. Even as some exclaim that “Black Friday is dead,” the shopping holiday is merely changing form and not becoming obsolete outright.  

This is an image of a person holding a small holiday gift in their hands.

What it Means for Black Friday 2017 

Black Friday 2017 is projected to be the biggest spending day of this year’s holiday season. More than half (52 percent) of consumers plan to shop on the retail holiday this year. The ever-expanding holiday season has become commonplace, as Retail Me Not found that 52 percentof retailers started their holiday promotions in September or even earlier this year. And shoppers are responding to these early offers, with 20 percent completing the bulk of their holiday shopping before Thanksgiving, and another 26 percent before November is over, according to Deloitte. 

The upcoming holiday weekend looks bright, as the National Retail Federation anticipates that 164 million consumers (a full 69 percent of Americans) will use it as an opportunity to check out across retail channels. Black Friday has morphed significantly over the years, but it’s clear that it will continue to be an important day to getting shoppers into the buying mood with the help of promotions.  

Angelica Valentine

Angelica Valentine is a Marketing Consultant with several years of expertise in the retail sector. Her work has appeared on VentureBeat, Business Insider, SAP, and more. She holds a BA from Barnard College of Columbia University.

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