LOS ANGELES, November 30, 2013 — On Thanksgiving Day, my children asked, “why do they call ‘Black Friday’ black?” Is it a day when black people get discounts? Why isn’t it called “White Friday,” “Red Friday” or “Blue Friday”?
With racial tension so high in America today, we might almost assume that any mention of color refers to someone’s race. Black Friday is not a federal holiday, or any kind of holiday or commemoration. There are different stories about the name, “Black Friday.” One is that it originated in Philadelphia, where it was used to describe the heavy vehicle traffic flow and people in the streets which would happen on the day after Thanksgiving.
Early references to Black Friday appeared before 1961 and began to see broader use outside Philadelphia around 1975. Employees of many non-retail businesses, teachers and students have Thanksgiving and the following Friday off, making it a four-day holiday. In California we observe the day after Thanksgiving as a holiday for state government employees.
Retailers have benefited from the surge in traffic on that Friday. Supposedly they operate in the red (they make losses) from January through Thanksgiving, then go into the black (start making profits for the year) on Black Friday. So for some people the black in “Black Friday” indicates the starting point at which retailers turn profits before year’s end.
For large retail chains like JC Penny, Wal-Mart and Macy’s, net income is positive from the beginning of the year. Black Friday is just icing on the cake, the start of a period when profit margins are even larger than usual.
This all points to another important color for the year: green. You might flunk your physics class if you say this, but in retail, red plus green makes black.
More and more retailers depend more and more on Black Friday to define their year. The holiday shopping season — let’s not be politically correct here; this shopping is for Christmas, not New Year’s Eve, Kwanzaa or Festivus — can make or break a small retailer. That’s why the marketing is so aggressive, the sales — many of them phony — such serious business. This is why people are trampled, tasered, and beaten as they try to buy merchandise to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
Companies need them lined up, revved up and ready to buy while the taste of turkey is still in their mouths.
With the growth of social media, Black Friday shoppers are using #hashtags to communicate deals online, and this is driving sudden movements of shoppers on the streets. Retailers have tried to harness social media platforms like Twitter to drive traffice. BestBuy was one of the most active early in the week, sending out dozens of tweets to promote items like digital cameras and appliances: “Treating customers at Best Buy Union Square with snuggies, scarves and other fun treats http://yhoo.it/fCstgA #bbyfriday” read one.
Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Staples and Target were among the busiest firms pushing Black Friday sales on Twitter. Among the most popular Black Friday hashtags were #blackfriday, with 1,325,280 posts, #blackfriday2013, with 7,308 posts, and #blackfridaydeals, with 7,209 posts.
Not everyone was on the Black Friday bandwagon this year. There were Black Friday protests at Walmart stores across the country, with nine protestors arrested in Fairfax, Virginia. The Walmart protests focused on wages. But other groups, like the Overpass Light Brigade, found the day a good one to protest for “progressive causes.” OLB stresses the “peaceful” and “playful” nature of its protests.
For some people, shopping on Black Friday is a family tradition; for others it represents what’s wrong with the Christmas season, the relentless and crass commercialization of a religious observance. For some it represents an important time in business that will keep their firms solvent and their workforce employed; for others it represents the oppression of American labor.
In social media, #blackfriday has evolved to mean different things to do after Thanksgiving — shop or protest.
Tell us, what did you do on #blackfriday? Have you added this as American tradition in your family holidays?
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