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The evolution of Black Friday shopping — and what 2021 may bring

How one day dedicated to sales morphed into a month-long promotional season.
Illustration of vintage woman shopping and driving
While Black Friday originated as an in-person holiday shopping experience, it saw more online sales in 2020 than ever before.mediaphotos / Getty Images ; RetroAtelier / Getty Images ; Debrocke/ClassicStock / Contributor / Getty Images

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 and stuck for longer periods of time, Kahn said. Instead of having to wait until Black Friday, 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.”

Black Friday, the shopping holiday that takes place every year the day after Thanksgiving, falls this year on Friday, Nov. 26. Since Black Friday is quickly approaching and retailers are gearing up to once again host sales during the pandemic, 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 2021 holiday shopping season — which may be as unique as last year’s pandemic made it — whether you plan to buy in person or online.

Black Friday, Big Friday, Black Friday again

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.

As it’s morphed into a general promotional season, Black Friday itself lost its magic — its sense of urgency.

Barbara Kahn, Professor of Marketing, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

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.”

What is Black Friday?

Black Friday occurs the Friday after Thanksgiving, a day many businesses have historically considered a paid holiday for employees. Because people are at home, Kahn said retailers slash 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 originated as an in-person shopping experience, unlike Amazon Prime Day and Cyber Monday. Amazon Prime Day is different: It’s a shopping event manufactured by Amazon to drive loyalty to its marketplace, experts told us.

Additionally, Black Friday is 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.

How Black Friday became Black November

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 have recently dubbed all of November to be “Black November,” referring to the long-term sales leading up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

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.

Katherine Cullen, Senior Director of Industry and Consumer Insights, National Retail Federation

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 retailers are now offering deals earlier in November — sometimes even toward the end of October — 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 earlier in November 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 2019, surveys conducted by the NRF and Prosper Insights & Analytics found that 56 percent of shoppers started buying gifts for the holidays during the first week of November, up from 48 percent in 2009.

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.

That’s exactly what Walmart and Target did in 2020: Both retailers reformatted their Black Friday sales due to the pandemic and to account for customers’ shopping habits, offering a series of separate savings events throughout November both online and in stores.

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 2020, it was down slightly from years prior. But sales during the overall holiday shopping season — which the NRF defines as the period from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 — grew 8.3 percent compared to 2019.

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 Covid impacted Black Friday 2020

In 2020, retailers like Walmart, Best Buy and Target closed their doors for in-person shopping on Thanksgiving Day for the first time in years to prevent the large crowds they usually hope to see. Health and safety came first, both for shoppers and retail staff, Kahn said. Retailers instead pushed online sales and reinvented their typical sales into month-long savings events. For example, Walmart introduced Black Friday Deals for Days and Target hosted Black Friday Now, both of which were a series of shopping events throughout November available in stores and online.

While Black Friday looked different in 2020 than in years past, the adjustments retailers made worked in their favor. Even during the pandemic, an estimated 186.4 million U.S. consumers shopped in-store and online from Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday, the NRF reported. While this number dropped slightly from 2019, the NRF said it’s still higher than the 165.8 million shoppers in 2018. Additionally, the NRF’s survey data showed the ripple effect of retailers moving many of their sales online and closing stores on Thanksgiving Day — the number of in-store shoppers on Thanksgiving Day dropped by 55 percent compared to 2019, and those on Black Friday dropped by 37 percent.

The pandemic also caused shoppers to increasingly rely on options like buying online and picking up in-store, as well as curbside pickup. CNBC reported that the use of curbside pickup on Black Friday increased 52 percent from 2019, according to data from Adobe Analytics. Walmart gave customers the option to pick up their online Black Friday orders through its contact-free curbside pickup service for the first time in 2020, and Target said its contactless same-day services — Drive Up, Order Pickup and Shipt — grew a combined 193 percent during the overall holiday shopping season.

The rate at which consumers shop online during Black Friday has been exponentially increasing over the past few years, especially since they can do so from so many different devices. And it all came to a head in 2019.

  • According to NRF data, Black Friday topped Cyber Monday as the busiest day for online shopping for the first time ever — Black Friday saw 93.2 million shoppers compared with 83.3 million on Cyber Monday.
  • And that trend continued into Black Friday 2020, which was the second largest online spending day in U.S. history, right behind Cyber Monday 2020, according to Adobe Analytics.
  • NRF data also showed that for the first time, the number of online Black Friday shoppers passed the 100 million mark in 2020, up 8 percent from 2019.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday also had to compete against Prime Day in 2020. Due to pandemic-related delays, Prime Day 2020 happened in October, the latest the sale has ever taken place. Experts questioned whether Prime Day would kickstart the 2020 holiday shopping season given the delay, and whether it would impact Black Friday and Cyber Monday earnings — generally, it did not, experts told us.

Black Friday in 2021

As long as it’s safe to draw people into storefronts again come November, Kahn predicts retailers will promote in-person Black Friday shopping more than they did in 2020. She thinks people missed shopping in-person throughout the pandemic.

“Retailers may be able to capitalize on people looking for the experience more than a good price,” Kahn said.

As retailers welcomed shoppers into their stores again this year, Cullen said many returned to in-person shopping despite the massive growth in online shopping during the pandemic. Especially when holiday shopping, Cullen mentioned that people like to touch items and see the products they’re buying for loved ones. She said the sentimental aspect of shopping for holiday gifts often drives people to visit stores in-person.

However, Walmart, Target and Best Buy already announced that their stores will be closed on Thanksgiving Day in 2021 — Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor of The NPD Group, thinks more retailers will do the same. He expects larger crowds at stores on Black Friday compared to 2020, “but nothing like we saw pre-pandemic.” Cohen said concerns about Covid variants are currently forcing some stores across the country to limit in-person shopping again and reevaluate their policies regarding face masks and vaccinations. Depending on how circumstances change as we get closer to November, retailers may be presented with some of the same challenges they faced in 2020.

Covid variants and increased rates of transmission across the country are once again causing concern. Whether retailers can offer in-person shopping at the scale they did pre-pandemic, however, might not dictate Black Friday’s success in 2021.

As experts saw during 2020, online shopping is more impactful than ever.

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