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Explained: Black Friday sales, criticisms and its significance

Black Friday came to be associated with Thanksgiving since around the middle of the 20th century.

Black Friday this year falls on November 26, a day after Thanksgiving, which is the day when many online and offline retailers launch the “Black Friday” sales that offer products at discounted prices to consumers.

Thanksgiving is a day that has been observed in the US since October 3, 1789 when President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789, as an official holiday of “sincere and humble thanks”. President Abraham Lincoln made the traditional Thanksgiving celebration a nationwide holiday in 1863 since when it has been commemorated each year on the fourth Thursday of November.

Black Friday came to be associated with Thanksgiving since around the middle of the 20th century. The Friday after Thanksgiving, when people in the US were offered attractive discounts on products, has now been exported to much of the rest of the world, including India where e-commerce companies such as Amazon and Flipkart launch their individual Black Friday sales.

What is Black Friday?

Black Friday is a sales weekend that follows Thanksgiving Day and is largely associated with post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas shopping. On this day, both online and offline stores offer attractive discounts to consumers.

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries defines ‘Black Friday’ as “the day after Thanksgiving in the US, the first day of traditional Christmas shopping, when stores have special offers to attract consumers”.

The Cambridge Dictionary says, “the Friday after Thanksgiving, when shops reduce the price of goods in order to attract customers who want to start their Christmas shopping”.

It is believed that the term Black Friday originated in the US, specifically in Philadelphia when in the 1960s police officers complained about one Friday when the streets were congested and clogged with traffic. They called it “Black Friday”. Alternatively, it is believed to symbolise the US gold market crash of 1869.

An article published by Oxford University Press’s (OUP) blog says that the earliest evidence for the term was found by researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), who say that the term first appeared in 1610. As per the article, the first Black Friday had very little to do with sales or Thanksgiving. The first such Friday did not refer to a specific Friday, but was used in schools to refer to any Friday on which an exam fell.

So, when did Black Friday become ‘the Friday after Thanksgiving’?

The retail interpretation of the phrase Black Friday happened in the US in the 1960s. During that time when accounting was done manually, “red” indicated losses and “black” indicated profits.

“We have found no evidence from before 1951 of Black Friday referring to the day following Thanksgiving, and in this instance its sense was markedly different to how we use the term today. In this context, instead, the day was associated with staff absences from factories following the Thanksgiving holiday. The first citation found for Black Friday in the sense of the start of the Christmas shopping season comes ten years later, in 1961,” the OUP blog says.

Furthermore, the introduction of the Thanksgiving Day Parade by the US department store Macy’s in 1924, which happened on the Friday after Thanksgiving, strengthened the association between this particular Friday and the commencement of the shopping season. According to Adobe Analytics, in 2018 Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales raked up over $9.9 billion in online sales in the US.

The online advertising company Criteo, which looked at about 3 billion transactions in the fourth quarter of 2019 and 2020 from more than 5,500 retailers across the Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific (APAC) notes that while the year over year Black Friday sales were down in the US, they were up in most EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) and APAC markets.

Even so, there was no significant change in year over year sales on Black Friday, the company notes. Further, Criteo says that sales in the first three weeks of November 2020 were up 17 percent year over year globally. In fact, “…this single day event evolved into a much longer sales period this year. It may also help explain the slight drop in the US, since sales happened earlier this year than ever before.”

Criticisms

Critics see Black Friday as a symbol of over-consumption that makes people buy products that are not needed, adding to waste generation and the subsequent carbon footprint.

About two years ago, activists in France staged Black Friday protests against online retailer Amazon as they blamed the service for exacerbating climate change through its rapid delivery services. Amazon introduced the concept of Black Friday sales to European markets.

The “Stop Black Friday” amendment in France was proposed around this time as part of an anti-waste Bill, which was put forward by France’s former environment minister Delphine Batho. The amendment proposed the integration of “Black Friday” advertising as part of “aggressive commercial practices” punishable by imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of Euros 300,000.

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