Black Friday used to be nothing more than a concept from America. Videos of people vying for control of discounted TV’s and stereo systems would filter over the internet every year, but that was about it.
Recently, it’s transformed from a meme to one of the biggest shopping periods in the UK. This year, it’s predicted that as much as £10bn could be spent over the Black Friday weekend.
But what is this phenomenon of capitalism? Where does it come from, and, most importantly, where did it get it’s rather macabre name?
What created this weekend of spending?
To understand Black Friday it’s important to understand where it fits into America’s busy festive calendar. Thanksgiving, arguably the biggest holiday in the states, takes place on the fourth Thursday of November.
The day after marks the beginning of the Christmas season, which is also kind of a big deal. Retailers, not wanting to miss out on the most lucrative point of the year, would put on a range of special offers to try and entice customers out of their Turkey induced slumber.
As Black Friday grew in popularity, businesses fell in line. Towards the end of the 20th century, the ritualistic opening of the doors at midnight began and the chaotic spendathon as we know it today was born.
Where does the term Black Friday come from?
It’s not as easy as you might think to pinpoint the origins of Black Friday. Some cheerier scholars suggested that it represents a huge sale opportunity for retailers and thus can put them in ‘the black’ for the year.
While this might be how it is understood today, the first use of the term dates back to the stock market crash of 1869. Without getting into the details, it involved two unscrupulous businessmen, Jay Gould and James Fisk attempting to drive up the price of gold.
The subsequent sell off caused a catastrophic crash and a 50% drop in value for wheat and corn, bankrupting millions. Hardly very festive.
So the traders are to blame?
Not quite. Exactly where the context of the current term comes from isn’t entirely clear. What is clear however, is that it managed to keep it’s negative connotations.
Some uses of Black Friday come from exasperated businesses in the early 20th century. Employees, still reeling from Thanksgiving, would call in sick the next day in unprecedented numbers.
This led to staff shortages on one of the biggest shopping weekends of the year. This annual ritual of collective truancy caused chaos with the economy, much like a certain fateful day in 1869…
In the 50’s and 60’s Philadelphia police would use the term Black Friday to describe the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The weekend saw an annual Army vs Navy football game. People would flock from all over, causing nightmarish traffic and an abundance of petty crime. Pretty much any policeman’s worst nightmare.
The chaos was only inflated by the tendency of shop staff to skip work that day. The result was a less than desirable ratio of customer service personnel to ecstatic shoppers.
How did it find its way to the UK?
Much like the British Invasion of the 1960’s, the U.S has left its own stamp on our culture.
Whereas we exported music, they returned the favour with businesses beyond count. Each bringing with them America’s own special brand of capitalism.
The U.K did seem to resist Black Friday for quite some time however. While Christmas sales starting at the end of November were perfectly normal, the notion of ‘Black Friday’ never quite made it until around 10 years ago.
U.S retail giant Amazon was the first notable company to try and bring the tradition over here in 2010.
It yielded some results, but it never really got going until Asda (who are owned by Walmart) introduced their own Black Friday deals in 2013. That pretty much clinched it.
From then on, everyone was at it, and while our Black Friday will never rival America’s, it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.