Into the black

Shoppers stream into Macy’s for pre-Black Friday bargains.










The blending of Thanksgiving and commerce continues to elicit outrage and moral indignation. This year, like in years past, critics of consumerism and those hearkening back to some romanticized version of an America free of consumerism are railing against those who are exercising their freedom of choice to shop early and most likely, often—especially for bargains.

The term “Black Friday” gets trotted out like a fresh “Tom” by the media about a week before Americans sit down to observe one of our high holidays as a nation. While gathering to give thanks for the bounties and blessings from the past year, many of our fellow countrymen are already plotting their shopping itinerary before the meal is finished and the leftovers are put away.

Outrage! Scandal! How dare money-grubbing retailers tarnish such a sacred day as Thanksgiving, the moralizers opine, as if America has ever been anything but a nation full of hustlers and deal makers. Shoot, I might even have been one of those killjoys at one time.

Since blogging regularly requires an immediate response to the subject being tackled, my less than thorough research reveals that Black Friday first originated in reference to retailing about 50 years ago.  It had nothing to do with retailers “going into the black” due to sales of merchandise, either, or as close as I can tell utilizing my on-the-fly research methods.

The story goes that the negative twins of darkness and retailing were joined back in 1961 when they first appeared in a marketing newsletter produced by Denny Griswold, about the day following Thanksgiving that year in Philadelphia.

Ms. Griswold initiated and edited one of the first newsletters of its kind, when she launched her Public Relations News in 1944. Here’s her account of that fateful shopping day 50 years past.

In her newsletter of December 18, 1961 (on page 2), Griswold wrote that,

Santa has brought Philadelphia stores a present in the form of “one of the biggest shopping weekends in recent history.”  At the same time, it has again been proven that there is a direct relationship between sales and public relations.

For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day.  Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in

Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.  Hardly a stimulus for good business, the problem was discussed by the merchants with their Deputy City Representative, Abe S. Rosen, one of the country’s most experienced municipal PR executives.  He recommended adoption of a positive approach which would convert Black Friday and Black Saturday to Big Friday and Big Saturday.  The media cooperated in spreading the news of the beauty of Christmas-decorated downtown Philadelphia, the popularity of a “family-day outing” to the department stores during the Thanksgiving weekend, the increased parking facilities, and the use of additional police officers for guaranteeing a free flow of traffic … Rosen reports that business over the weekend was so good that merchants are giving downtown Philadelphia “a starry-eyed new look.”

There’s a bit more context than just retail in this Philadelphia story, at least in relation to the city and other things going on that contributed to the problems encountered that might have gotten lumped into the retail blackness.

The rest of the story says that the Friday in question was already tucked tightly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that’s played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday.  The City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that particular day. While the additional influx of people was great for retailers, they became a major pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone else forced to negotiate the city’s streets. Thus, this is where/when the annual day of commercial bedlam became “Black Friday,” a reflection of how irritating it was.

At least that’s the unfolding of the story at mental_floss, which also dispels a number of other myths about the blackness of the Friday following Turkey Day.

Shopping is about as American as apple pie and Americans have always enjoyed the practice as long as there have been retail establishments providing them with goods to purchase.

Wikipedia tells us that if anyone’s to blame for the denigration of Thanksgiving via shopping and retail commerce, we can lay that one squarely at Santa’s feet.

Since parades like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade often included an appearance by Santa at the end of the parade, with the idea being that Thanksgiving tells us that Santa and Christmas are “just around the corner,” it’s little wonder that retailers like Macy’s (and Eaton’s in Canada) would use their parades as promotional vehicles to drive customers into their stores with major advertising campaigns.

At the time, there existed an unwritten rule that no store would initiate their Christmas advertising before the parade was over. In light of that, it does seem that retailers have gone a bit over the top the past few years, as advertising and now, actual shopping has been moved up from midnight, to stores now opening earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving Day.

As they say, “when in Rome.”

I’m not a shopper by nature, at least I’m not given to the crush and crowd-surfing required to stay afloat on Black Friday. However, I’ve become a fan of what’s now called Small Business Saturday, which seeks to drive customers to smaller, locally-owned retailers.

If I’m going to shop over Thanksgiving weekend, this is the more likely avenue for me; supporting businesses that actually might benefit from an increase in traffic post-turkey and Thanksgiving.