The day after Thanksgiving, once a day dedicated to laying on the couch in sweatpants recovering from binge eating, has become a day of shopping chaos. How did we get here? Why do we wake up before dawn (or in 2011, stay up on Thursday night until Friday afternoon) on a day otherwise meant for resting?

Here’s a little history lesson in how we got to this point.

Best Buy Black Friday line

Shoppers waiting overnight for Best Buy to open on Black Friday


Thanksgiving Parades

We all know about Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and do you remember who makes his first appearance of the year? Santa. Early in the 20th century many Thanksgiving parades and Santa parades were hosted by department stores and were used as their first big Christmas advertising blitz. Because this was the first time Santa appears for the year it sets off the holiday spirit.  An unwritten rule amongst stores developed that no one would advertise before the parades, turning the day after Thanksgiving into the start of the holiday season. This monopoly finally broke in 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving back a week earlier, allowing for a longer shopping season.

What’s in a name?

A lot of people think the name Black Friday comes from the color of the sky when you wake up to go shopping, or relates to how you feel half dead when you get home from shopping. “Black Friday”  was first used to describe the day after Thanksgiving by police officers in the 1960s  in Philadelphia, PA. They called the day Black Friday in reference to the traffic in the area caused by shoppers and extra crowds drawn into the city by the College Football Army v. Navy game. In the 1980s, retailers began to dislike having their biggest sale day of the year referred to in a negative light so they pushed the theory that the day was called Black Friday because it marked the first day that a retailer had sold through enough inventory and turned a profit for the year, putting them “in the black” according to the old by-hand accounting system of using black ink to indicate a profit and red ink to indicate a loss.

Getting out of hand

Somewhere around 2005 Black Friday moved to a whole new level of cult holiday. Stores that used to open at 6am started pushing the time back earlier and earlier and as deals got better and better, crowds got rowdier and more violent.

In 2006 things weren’t too bad. A man at a Best Buy in Virginia was recorded assualting someone and in Columbus Ohio some Walmart shoppers were injured when the store decided to release gift certificates from the ceiling. Two years later, however, things escalated.

In 2008 a 34-year old Walmart employee was trampled to death in Valley Steam, NY. Shoppers would not stop their stampede even when employees and police were attempting to assist the man. At the same store, a pregnant woman had to be taken to the hospital. This was the first time someone died directly as a result of a  Black Friday Frenzy.

In 2010 a few shoppers were arrested in various states for threatening other shoppers and employees and a man at a Target in Buffalo, NY was trampled when the doors opened but unlike the man in 2008, this one survived.

Last year in 2011 things really heated up.  A woman at a Walmart in LA used pepper spray on her fellow shoppers, causing injuries to about 20 people. At a Walmart in San Leandro, CA a man was wounded after being shot by another shopper. Another famous incident in 2011 was  the firing of 73 year-old Walmart greeter Jan Sullivan. Sullivan was shoved by a shopper when trying to block her from entering an employee-only section. Sullivan grabbed the woman’s arm out of instinct to keep from falling and was immediately fired because of a Walmart policy against touching customers.

The Future

Even having worked in a well-known personal care retail store for the last four Black Fridays, I still dare not presume what the future brings. This year I  think more and more small retailers in shopping complexes and malls will give in to the pressure that big box and department stores set last year by opening Thursday at midnight. It will be interesting to see if these retailers that follow suit can keep up with the demand for their products or if their corporate offices will drop the ball when it comes to sending them enough to keep the shelves stocked for a full 24-hours (many stores stay open until at least 10pm Friday if not midnight).

I also wonder if by 2015 we’ll be eating Thanksgiving turkey sausages for breakfast and then rushing off to be there when stores open at noon on Thursday.

If you’ve been a long time participant in Black Friday how/when did you get involved?

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About Kathryn Denton

Kathryn has just finished the Master's program in Public Relations and Advertising at DePaul University. An avid reader and musician, she loves cats, cross-stitching and anything Chinese - except the food.