Lines wrapped around department stores, violent fights over products and crowds so large they came pouring out of retailers’ front doors all used to be par for the course on Black Friday, remembers Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. But over the years, what used to define Black Friday — sprinting into stores before sunrise to shop deals that lasted 24 hours only — has changed significantly.
Ever since they’ve had to compete with Cyber Monday’s offerings, Black Friday deals have become available earlier, stuck around for longer periods of time and increasingly moved online, Kahn said. Instead of having to wait until Black Friday — or go to stores — shoppers could now take advantage of deals during Black November, the broader term experts use to describe the month-long promotions leading up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
“Black Friday used to be a trigger for people to go to the store,” Kahn said. “But as it’s morphed into a general promotional season, Black Friday itself lost its magic — its sense of urgency.”
SKIP AHEAD Black Friday 2022 predictions | How Black Friday got its name
Black Friday, the shopping holiday that takes place every year the day after Thanksgiving, falls on Friday, Nov. 25 this year. Since it's quickly approaching (and some retailers have already started hosting early sales) we spoke to experts about the history behind the shopping holiday and charted how it’s changed over the years. Experts also discussed what to expect during the 2022 holiday shopping season and what we learned from years past.
Looking back on Black Fridays of years past
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic forced retailers to rethink Black Friday sales, there were signs the shopping holiday’s identity was changing. In 2019, Black Friday topped Cyber Monday as the busiest day for online shopping for the first time ever, according to the National Retail Federation — Black Friday saw 93.2 million shoppers compared with 83.3 million on Cyber Monday. And circumstances in 2020 only further pushed shoppers towards buying online during Black Friday, as well as making purchases earlier in the season.
To prevent the large crowds they usually hope to see at stores in 2020, many retailers closed their doors on Thanksgiving Day — when many people begin shopping for doorbuster deals — for the first time in years, like Walmart, Best Buy and Target. And although retailers’ storefronts were open on Black Friday, in-store shopping dropped 37% year-over-year, and 44% more shoppers bought online only in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the NRF’s surveys.
To reinvent their typical Black Friday offerings in 2020, retailers pushed online shopping and transformed their typical days-long sales into months-long savings events. For example, Walmart introduced Black Friday Deals for Days and Target hosted a series of Black Friday sales, both of which took place throughout November. These efforts worked in retailers’ favor. NRF data showed that for the first time ever, the number of online Black Friday shoppers passed the 100 million mark in 2020, up 8% from 2019. Black Friday 2020 was also the second largest online spending day in U.S. history after Cyber Monday, according to Adobe Analytics.
In 2021, we saw similar Black Friday trends compared to the year prior. Black Friday surpassed Cyber Monday in terms of total online shoppers once again — 88 million people shopped online on Black Friday compared to 77 million on Cyber Monday, according to the NRF. (Although people have continued to spend more on Cyber Monday than on Black Friday in recent years, according to Adobe.) These numbers are down slightly compared to 2020, as are total estimated Black Friday sales — Black Friday sales totaled $8.9 billion in 2021 compared to $9 billion in 2020, according to Adobe.
Black Friday 2021 marked the first time ever that growth reversed itself year-over-year, which experts said may be because shoppers bought products during early sales instead of over Thanksgiving weekend — NRF data shows that 49% of shoppers said they took advantage of early sales before Thanksgiving, almost matching the 52% of shoppers who said the same thing in 2020. And while in-store shopping saw a slight resurgence last year, retailers like Target, Best Buy, Kohl’s, JCPenney, Bed Bath & Beyond and more continued to shut their doors on Thanksgiving, with some even making the change permanent.
Looking forward to Black Friday 2022
In 2022, the holiday shopping season is battling one main obstacle: Inflation. Prices are up across the board, and since people have to spend more on basics like gas and groceries, the NRF expects holiday sales during November and December to rise between 6% and 8% compared to last year — this, when the effect of inflation is factored in, marks a decline.
So what does that mean for Black Friday?
“U.S. consumers continue to send mixed signals,” said McKinsey & Company’s Kelsey Robinson, senior partner who focuses on marketing strategies, and Tamara Charm, partner who analyzes consumer insight and sentiment, in a joint statement. On the one hand, shoppers are concerned about the overall U.S. economy and rethinking how they spend their money.
But, on the other hand, people are hungry for sales and deals, as well as excited for the holidays, making them eager to spend and splurge, Robinson and Charm noted. And this year’s deals may be better than those of years past, our experts said. Additionally, many early Black Friday sales started in mid-October this year, giving shoppers a longer stretch of time to spread out their spending.
There’s no doubt in experts’ minds that online shopping will dominate on Black Friday and Cyber Monday this year, as well as during the overall holiday season. And beyond shopping through retailers’ websites and getting products delivered to their doors, experts said shoppers will continue to take advantage of curbside pick up options if they want products quickly — and to shop through social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Despite the convenience factor of online shopping, many are expected to shop in stores again, too. “As people are feeling more comfortable traveling and celebrating the holidays in larger gatherings this year, we are seeing this comfort translate to the stores,” Robinson and Charm said.
How Black Friday became Black November
Black Friday originated as an in-person shopping experience, unlike Amazon Prime Day and Cyber Monday. Black Friday occurs the Friday after Thanksgiving, a day many businesses historically consider a paid holiday for employees. Because people are at home, Kahn said retailers began slashing prices on merchandise to draw shoppers into stores, offering discounts on big-ticket items like televisions, electronics and appliances. “Deals had to be worth jumping out of bed and running to the store for —and maybe even waiting in line for a while, too,” Kahn said.
Black Friday was also originally meant to be a social shopping experience that people participate in together, said Katherine Cullen, the National Retail Federation (NRF)’s senior director of industry and consumer insights. Families and friends go to stores in groups — in contrast, shopping during Amazon Prime Day and Cyber Monday is a solitary activity you can do on your phone, computer or tablet.
Over the years, retailers began competing with one another to see who could open the earliest on Black Friday. Some, like Walmart, Target, Best Buy and Kohl’s, even started opening their doors on Thanksgiving to “participate in the rat race to see who could get people to run to their stores first,” Kahn said. This led to Black Friday becoming what Cullen called a five-day shopping weekend beginning on Thanksgiving and ending on Cyber Monday. As these five days expanded into a week and then into weeks, experts dubbed all of November to be “Black November.”
The Black Friday weekend used to mark the beginning of the winter holiday shopping season, while December 24 — the day before Christmas — marked its end, Cullen said. But because many retailers are now offering deals over a month ahead of Black Friday, this retail calendar is growing obsolete.
“Before, Thanksgiving weekend was really the start of the shopping season. Now, we look at it as more of a halfway point,” Cullen said. “Black Monday and Cyber Monday are hallmark events that have a very important place both for consumers and retailers, but within a broader context of a longer shopping season.”
Starting sales so early is also a response to shopper behavior, Cullen said. She explained that retailers adjusted their sale schedules as they saw an increase in early holiday shopping, a trend NRF surveys have supported. In recent years, half or over half of shoppers surveyed say they took advantage of early sales before Thanksgiving.
Because Black Friday and Cyber Monday are now stretched out over five days — or the entire month of November in some cases — retailers have had to format their sales strategically to make sure they maintain shoppers’ interest. In order to do so, Cullen said some retailers promote deals on different product categories during specific days or weeks instead of offering blanket storewide sales throughout the month. It’s now common — if not expected by shoppers — for retailers to offer a series of separate savings events throughout November both online and in stores. In 2022, for example, Target, Walmart, Best Buy, Macy’s and more kicked off their sales well before what’s officially considered “Black Friday.”
How Black Friday impacts the holiday shopping season
While Black Friday and Cyber Monday are intertwined with the larger holiday shopping season, Cullen emphasized that they’re not dependent on one another. For example, when the NRF surveyed shoppers about how much they spent during Thanksgiving weekend in 2021, it was down slightly from 2020. But sales during the overall holiday shopping season — which the NRF defines as the period from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 — grew 14.1% year-over year.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday are also impactful to the retail calendar worldwide. While Americans associate Black Friday and Cyber Monday with Thanksgiving, over 20 countries — including the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden and Mexico — host similar sales, some using the same name despite not celebrating Thanksgiving. And Black Friday shopping events worldwide take place on the same day — for example, retailers in Canada host Black Friday sales on the same day that they take place in the U.S. despite the country recognizing the second Monday in October as its Thanksgiving holiday. Kahn said this speaks to Black Friday’s legacy and weight: doorbuster deals and a social shopping experience made for the holiday season.
How did Black Friday get its name?
The term “Black Friday” originally had no connection to shopping, explained Nancy Koehn, a historian and professor at the Harvard Business School. It described a financial panic in 1869 that resulted from investors Jay Gould and Jim Fisk driving up gold prices and ultimately causing the market to crash. Since its 19th century inception, Koehn said the term “Black Friday” has generally been used to describe other bad events or negative situations, like workers not showing up to their jobs the day after Thanksgiving.
The first time “Black Friday” specifically referred to shopping the day after Thanksgiving came in the 1950s. Police in Philadelphia complained about an influx of people coming to the city to shop the day after Thanksgiving, calling it a “Black Friday” because they had to control crowds. From there, the term was used to describe shopping the day after Thanksgiving, and gained momentum with each passing year.
Originally, retailers were upset about the name “Black Friday” because the term had a negative connotation, Koehn said. Efforts arose to call it “Big Friday” instead. Those efforts failed, though, so retailers changed the narrative and decided that Black Friday is when they’re supposed to be “in the black,” a financial phrase describing the profitability and prosperity of a business, in contrast to being “in the red,” or in a deficit.
Koehn said the idea of positioning Black Friday as a shopping holiday “galloped forward” between the 1970s and 1980s, which she attributes to retailers instigating competition between one another, as well as intensifying and expanding the deals they offered.
“There was no defining moment that made us call Black Friday ‘Black Friday,’” Koehn said. “It’s really the evolution of language and definition, retail practices and consumers responding to that.”
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Barbara Kahn is a professor of marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
- Kelsey Robinson is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company who focuses on marketing strategies.
- Tamara Charm is a partner at McKinsey & Company who analyzes consumer insight and sentiment.
- Katherine Cullen is the senior director of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation.
- Nancy Koehn is a historian and professor at the Harvard Business School.
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