• Associated Press

Black Friday Is Almost Here. What to Know about the Holiday Sales Event’s History and Evolution

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File
Crowds walk past a large store sign displaying a Black Friday discount in midtown Manhattan, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in New York.

NEW YORK (AP) — If you didn’t already guess it from a barrage of sales ads in your inbox, the holiday shopping season is upon us. And Black Friday is right around the corner.

While Black Friday may no longer look like the crowd-filled, in-person mayhem that it was just decades ago — in large part due to the rising dependence on online shopping that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic — the holiday sales event is still slated to attract millions of consumers.

The National Retail Federation projects that an estimated 182 million are planning to shop in-stores and online through the five-day Thanksgiving weekend. Black Friday is set to lead the charge, making up for 130.7 million of the potential shoppers.

At the same time, economists note that fear of inflation, while down from a year ago, is still a concern looming in consumers’ minds — and could lead to somewhat modest spending this season. The extension of Black Friday sales and growing strength of other shopping events (hello Cyber Monday ) is also changing what holiday spending looks like today.

Here’s what you need to know about Black Friday’s history and where things stand in 2023.

WHEN IS BLACK FRIDAY IN 2023?

Black Friday falls on the Friday after Thanksgiving each year. In 2023, Black Friday is Nov. 24.

HOW OLD IS BLACK FRIDAY? WHERE DOES ITS NAME COME FROM?

The term “Black Friday” is several generations old, but it wasn’t always associated with the holiday retail frenzy that we know today. The gold market crash of September 1869, for example, was notably dubbed Black Friday.

The phrase’s use in relation to shopping the day after Thanksgiving, however, is most often traced to Philadelphia in the mid-20th century — when police and other city workers had to deal with large crowds who collected before the annual Army-Navy game and to take advantage of seasonal sales.

That’s why the bus drivers and cab drivers call today ‘Black Friday.’ They think in terms of headaches it gives them, a Gimbels department store sales manager told The Associated Press in 1975, while watching a police officer try to control jaywalkers the day after Thanksgiving. Earlier references date back to the 50s and 60s.

Jie Zhang, a professor of marketing and the Harvey Sanders Fellow of Retail Management at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, points to a 1951 mention of “Black Friday” in a New-York based trade publication — which noted that many workers called in sick the day after Thanksgiving in hopes of having a long holiday weekend.

Starting in the 1980s, retailers nationwide also began claiming that Black Friday represented the time when they went from operating in the red to the black as sales boost profits. But since many operate in the black at various times of the year, this interpretation should be taken with a grain of salt, experts say.

HOW HAS BLACK FRIDAY EVOLVED?

In recent decades, Black Friday became infamous for floods of people in jam-packed stores and endless lines of shoppers camped out at midnight in hopes of scoring deep discounts.

But the rise of online shopping has made it easier to do most, if not all, holiday purchases from your couch — something that was only accelerated by COVID-19. And while malls and in-person stores have bounced back to decent-sized crowds compared to the start of the pandemic, the growing strength of e-commerce isn’t going away.

The peak of brick and mortar retail sales for the month of November was seen 20 years ago, according to Jay Zagorsky, a clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. In 2003, e-commerce accounted for just 1.7% of total retail sales in the fourth quarter, per the U.S. Commerce Department.

Unsurprisingly, online sales make up for a much bigger slice of the pie today. For last year’s holiday season, e-commerce accounted for about 16.3% of all nonadjusted retail sales in the fourth quarter, according to the Commerce Department. That’s up from 12.7% seen at the end of 2019.

Beyond the rise of online shopping, the prices of some big ticket items that historically attracted swaths of in-person shoppers — like a new TV — are significantly cheaper than they were decades ago, Zagorsky adds.

About 20 years ago, for example, Zagorsky says a new flatscreen TV would typically go for several thousand dollars — meaning that a 15% or 20% off Black Friday deal could mean saving hundreds. But today, consumers can find a comparable 32-incher for as low as $80.

20% off an $80 TV is $16… I’m not standing in line at midnight for $16, he said, noting that shoppers can also find those deals from the comfort of their homes online today — and, of course, before and beyond the day after Thanksgiving.

BLACK FRIDAY ‘MONTH’ AND THE RISE OF CYBER MONDAY

It’s no secret that Black Friday sales don’t last 24 hours anymore. Today, you might be getting emails with Black Friday-like sales even before Halloween, Zhang said.

It literally becomes a month… (and) this is not a very recent phenomenon, she said, noting that retailers have been moving these holiday deals earlier and earlier for about a decade.

This “widening” of Black Friday comes from both rising competition among retailers and needs to ease pressure on shipping logistics, which were particuarly strained at the start of the particularly, Zhang said. Offering early deals for holiday sales helps extend that window.

Using the term “Black Friday” in these pre-Thanksgiving sales is also a marketing technique, she said — noting that it’s a name consumers recognize and associate with big bargains. Zagorsky adds that there’s “more and more temporary sales” during this period, further creating opportunities that entice consumers to act fast.

Beyond deals bearing the Black Friday name, post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping is now kicked off by multiple shopping events — including Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, which emerged officially back in 2005 with a name from the National Retail Federation’s online arm.

Cyber Monday (and, at this point, Cyber Week) in particular has skyrocketed in the e-commerce era. According to Adobe Analytics, consumers spent a record total of $11.3 billion on Cyber Monday in 2022, marking the biggest online shopping event of the year. During the peak hour, shoppers spent $12.8 million each minute.

Black Friday, like other sales events, continues to live online too — but not with these kinds of e-commerce numbers. And while it may not look the same as it did decades ago, in-person Black Friday shopping won’t vanish entirely. Zagorsky points to the social appeal and pleasure consumers experience when making purchases in stores, as well as the fact that people are more likely to do their retail shopping on a Friday than other weekdays.

Black Friday is slowly getting less and less important, but it’s not going to disappear ever, he said.