Consumer Guides

What is Black Friday, Even?

Is it a day for sporting fabulous black turtlenecks? No?

Well it should be. There should be a day for that.

In the ongoing quest to de-fog the sneaky marketing techniques of brands, today we are going to examine the history and purpose and, most importantly, actual savings of Black Friday.

Ye Old History of Black Friday

The origin of the term is actually rather difficult to pin down. There’s a bunch of myths surrounding it, including one that claims Black Friday rose out of the sale of slaves after Thanksgiving day in the antebellum period of American history. (This is untrue.)

Instead, people have claimed that it is the first part of the year that stores are no longer in the red, but in the black. Hence, Black Friday.

Mike Petrucci

In fact the term originates from police officers in Philadelphia who, in dealing with the massive traffic post-Thanksgiving, derisively termed the day Black Friday. Oh and there were massive amounts of shoplifters sneaking about.

The only reason retailers managed to reclaim the grandiose title “Black Friday” is thanks to the red-to-black earnings myth. Once again, a sinister past is made marketable…

Do you really, truly, save anything?

Eek and here’s the bad, but basically predictable, news. You don’t really save that much. The deals? The door-busting, this-time-only deals? Not really deals.

Those red and yellow garish stickers that scream “50% off!” or slash through a list price to exemplify your amazing deal? Yeah those are lying to you. Or, at least, they’re not telling the whole truth. The list prices you see are either fake or inflated so that the “amazing discount” you’re getting is more impressive to you. As to how companies manufacture list prices, a lot of the items are released just before Black Friday so that there is no record of their price and that price is therefore malleable.

Need some solid numbers to be convinced? Time reported in 2015 that Amazon’s average discount was 2.5%, Walmart’s average discount was 3.6% or less, and Target came in with the biggest average discounts at 6.8% or less. Though, writer Brad Tuttle cautions:

“It’s easy for a retailer to have the biggest discounts if it had the highest prices to begin with.”

Heidi Sandstrom.

Why bother then?

Well you can still binge some Black Friday deals, but you have to be a little cunning to get it done right. Oftentimes the best deals are pre-Black Friday, especially since companies now compete for the whole week up until Cyber Monday and will try to outdo one another. Look out for those presales.

And it’s not as if your family tradition of waiting outside in the freezing cold for some HD TV has to die out (though I don’t know why you’d want to stand in the cold), but it is worth mentioning that the clever fusion of family values and buying things is a smart move on the side of advertisers.

In a particularly interesting study published in 2011 by Jane Boyd Thomas and Cara Peters, the authors took 38 experienced female Black Friday shoppers and interviewed them. From their qualitative data, they drew four major themes of this shopping ritual:

  1. Familial Bonding: this is a “collective consumption” ritual, a family event
  2. Strategic Planning: participants expressed extensive planning, often roping in friends and relatives into their plans
  3. The Great Race: many interviewees describe the shopping experience’s competitive nature and find joy in “racing” to beat other shoppers
  4. Mission Accomplished: shoppers see their day as a satisfying success when they have bought much for as little as possible; in this way they have “won”

The authors map out a the concept of a “ritual”, as described by Dennis Rook in 1985 to be:

 “a type of expressive, symbolic activity constructed of multiple behaviours that occur in a fixed, episodic sequence, and that tend to be repeated over time” 

They also emphasize the ferocity with which families, especially women (since shopping and holiday planning is typecast as women’s work) defend and uphold these holiday rituals. Christmas, of course, is a perfect example.

Ethan Hoover

I find this study important for different reasons than Thomas and Peters (who suggest to advertisers how to effectively tap into these markets) and it is in the blending of familial bonding with consumerism. It’s a particularly strong attachment, as separating the two or finding a way to balm the burning passion many families have for their pricey/wasteful rituals would be hard-fought battle.

Just the mere thought of all the impulse buys off of a Black Friday shelf, or the cheaply-made decorations that disintegrate or go out of style the very next year is enough to make one pause before yet another variation on a plastic santa. In economics it’s termed “planned obsolescence” or: making things that will be useless/unfashionable in short periods of time. Those are things like Mardi Gras beads, adhesive snowflakes, or trendy Thanksgiving decorations.

And therefore this post was made. Made to make you pause just for a moment before swiftly typing in credit card numbers or swiping for that random thing you had to have because of the price. Made to make you think that perhaps camping or doing an outdoor, wintry bonfire is the better activity in comparison to installing yourselves in a Walmart parking lot.

Perhaps you didn’t even make it down here. If so, maybe the stickers will fool you after all!

Thanksgiving bisous,




Questions? Comments? Miscellania?

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