It’s a confusing time to be a holiday shopper.
While Black Friday is still a week away, consumers have been inundated with “Black Friday” sales for the past several weeks—or even months, depending on how you look at it. JCPenney launched its Black Friday 2023 sale on November 3, with three days of specials. Kohls launched its early-access sale the same day. Walmart began offering deals in store on November 10. And, while it wasn’t labeled a Black Friday sale, Amazon’s Prime Deal Days event on October 10 and 11 was certainly targeted at advance holiday shoppers.
This year marks the 99th anniversary of Black Friday, and, now more than ever, the term seems increasingly absurd.
While the phrase we all know to mean the “biggest shopping day of the year” wasn’t officially coined until the early 1960s and didn’t become ubiquitous till the ‘80s, its origins date long before that. In 1924, Macy’s held its first Thanksgiving Day Parade, which acted as the demarcation for the start of the holiday shopping season. Ironically, retailers initially hated the term Black Friday and pushed to call it Big Friday instead. While that term never caught on, the idea of the day becoming a big deal for retailers did.
Just less than 15 years ago, Black Friday was a singular, one-day event. Shoppers, myself included, would wake up as early as 3 a.m., fighting the lingering tryptophan in their system to venture out into the dark to bargain hunt—often seduced by “doorbusters,” deeply discounted items that were available for only a limited time. The smart people finished their runs by 8 a.m., avoiding the overwhelming crowds that inevitably made the evening newscasts, and comparing notes on the best places to find items. They’d share coupons. They held each other’s place in line.
Now, that unofficial retail holiday has become an ungainly mess, oozing well beyond the boundaries of a 24-hour day and spanning a period of several weeks, with many arguing that it begins as soon as the last trick-or-treater leaves your patio.
The concept of Black Friday has been stretched to the point of ridiculousness. It’s no more a single-day event than Amazon’s Prime Day is. It’s a buzzword meant to lure shoppers in with the promise of great deals, even if some of the prices are actually higher than they are during the rest of the year.
Also becoming farcical: Cyber Monday. That outdated term might have made sense in the very early 2000s, when online shopping needed a marketing boost, but a sizable percentage of today’s retail transactions, both during the holidays and the rest of the year, is done online. In fact, Black Friday is as much a “cyber” event as Cyber Monday. (Roughly 87.2 million consumers shopped online during Black Friday 2022, according to the National Retail Federation, compared to 77 million on Cyber Monday.)
Here’s the thing, though. While those days saw a surge of online shoppers, there are plenty of other online shopping “holidays” that draw big crowds. People bought 375 million items from Amazon on Prime Day 2023, and the event began surpassing Black Friday sales figures years ago. Meanwhile, Walmart and Target lure shoppers in with deals of their own while people are primed to spend from Amazon’s relentless marketing.
As companies compete for your holiday shopping dollars, they’ve even begun trying to divert consumers’ attention away from the cognitive dissonance of a month-long “shopping day” with such terms as “early Black Friday” or “Cyber season.”
Some stores, like Wolfpoint, a Chicago-based boutique watch brand, have been so bold as to declare this month “Black November” in email marketing.
For many brick-and mortar-Black Friday loyalists, the pandemic was the final straw. Now, more than ever, people seem less willing to throw an elbow to save a few bucks on a non-name-brand TV. They’re relying on online shopping to find the best deals, using aids like camelcamelcamel and community-driven deal sites like SlickDeals.net to find the best price every day, and especially on Black Friday. Flyers for sales go out weeks or months in advance, and shoppers can scan BlackFriday.com to see what’s going to be on sale where (and for how much)—and then just click the link when the sale begins.
Some even predict the whole concept of Black Friday as a shopping day could be dead within 15 to 20 years.
“The ‘ritual’ of Black Friday shopping will fade,” Reshma Shah, a professor in the practice of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, tells Fast Company. “Savvy retailers, both online and offline, will base sales on year-long events instead of specific dates and will compete with one another based on moments. The meaning of ‘Black Friday’ therefore, will have historical meaning, at best.”
Of course, the holiday shopping season will never die. But at the risk of sounding Grinch-like, Black Friday’s status as a holiday tradition is gravely at risk of going the way of the fruitcake.