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Why is it called ‘Black Friday’? | Webexpenses Watercooler

Where did ‘Black Friday’ come from? It's a topic of interest within our team this month; our virtual 'watercooler'. And everyone has a different theory.

We know what it has become: the biggest shopping day of the year. But where did come from?

There were two popular theories to emerge within the Webexpenses team:

  1. It’s the day (after Thanksgiving) when sales put retailers’ accounts ‘into the black’ for holiday buying.
  2. And refers to the general commotion and mayhem of a sales rush.

So who’s right about Black Friday's origins?

The importance of the day after Thanksgiving can be traced back to the late 19th century. This is when department stores in the US started to sponsor the Santa Claus parades that were held in many towns.

It became a tradition to use these events to start the Christmas retail push with sales and offers. To give the US economy a boost, President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought Thanksgiving back a week to extend the Christmas shopping period - making it the fourth rather than the last Thursday in November.

When was the term ‘Black Friday’ first used?

The earliest known reference dates back to 1951 and an obscure trade magazine: Factory Management and Maintenance. It talks about it as a form of ‘Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis’ with so many workers taking the day off.

But it’s a decade later in the city of Philadelphia that the real roots of the phrase are found. This is when authorities start using ‘Black Friday’ to describe the traffic congestion and general problems caused by post-Thanksgiving sales crowds.

A marketing newsletter from 1961 states:

“For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day. Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.”

This helps to explain why retailers have always had a slightly weird relationship with Black Friday. Various attempts have been made over the years to give the term a more positive spin with an alternative such as ‘Big Friday’ or ‘Green Friday’.

But by the 1990s the original Philadelphia phrase had become firmly embedded and was starting to be commonly used across the US media. Rather than fighting it, the retail world began to embrace it and a global sales phenomenon was borne.

Case closed

So there you have it. The name ‘Black Friday’ comes from the general commotion traditionally caused by post-Thanksgiving sales crowds. Interestingly, the theory about it being linked to accounts going into the ‘black’ was part of the rebranding attempts of the 1990s.

Black Friday facts

  • Black Friday first became the biggest shopping day of the year in 2001
  • Items of clothing are the most purchased Black Friday sales items
  • In 2008, a New York WalMart employee was killed by a stampede of sales shoppers
  • Countries where Black Friday takes place: Canada, UK, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand
  • Around 40% of the sales on Black Friday are online purchases
  • In 2017, the average spend of a Black Friday shopper was US$335.47
  • Cyber Monday is a marketing term coined in 2005 as a rival promotion
  • Increased shopping traffic has been linked to a 34% increase in traffic accidents
  • 30% of all sales occur in the period between Black Friday and Christmas
  • Amazon accounted for 54.9% of all Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales in 2019.