Holiday Mania: The Evolution of Black Friday and Cyber Monday

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
 
The United States is unique in its annual Black Friday and Cyber Monday traditions. Each year the newsreel rolls with headlines of monstrous crowds storming Wal-Marts and Macy’s department stores across the country while images and videos spill across the internet of people fighting over Barbie Dolls and television sets. So why is it that consumers rush to department stores with their wallets handy the day after declaring all they’re thankful for?

While Black Friday has a long history in the United States, Cyber Monday arrived on the scene many years later. In 2012, with the blessing of online retailers, marketers took Black Friday and gave it a digital spin. No longer did people have to fight the chaos and crowds - they could now do their holiday shopping from the comfort of their homes.
 
So, where did it all begin? How has Black Friday and Cyber Monday evolved into the events we experience today? Surely, you’ve heard the rumors - some reaching all the way back to the early 1800s. Over the years, as people have tried to pinpoint the exact origin of the spectacle, wild stories have come to light. Some are true while others are entirely false. While each has helped to build the perception of Black Friday we have today, only one is the true genesis. With this post, we’re going to dispel the myths and reveal the true history and evolution of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
 
The Myths of Black Friday
 
The term “Black Friday” didn’t originally refer to a shopping bonanza on the Friday following Thanksgiving. On September 24, 1869, the stock market crashed, causing the price of common goods to drop 20 percent and the cost of gold to plummet 60 percent. This happened as a result of two thieving Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and James Fisk, who together bought up as much of the nation’s gold as possible and sold it at enormous prices. It was a Friday when the plot was revealed, and the market crashed, thus the name “Black Friday.”
 
With the origin of the term “Black Friday” clear, it’s important to identify where this idea for a day of massive sales originated. In some myths, the history of Black Friday takes a dark turn. It is said that during the slave era of American history, “Black Friday” was the day after Thanksgiving when all the slaves on the market were half-price. The concept leaked into department stores nationwide and the Black Friday we know today was born. Fortunately, this version of the story is untrue. 

Shoppers in the candy aisle at J.J. Newberry during 1950. Reprinted from Vintage Tampa Storefronts and Scenes by John V. Cinchett, courtesy of USFSCL (pg. 43, Arcadia Publishing, 2012).A common thread of narrative, and the one you’ve likely heard most often, stems from retailers. As the story goes, retailers curiously reported seeing a hike in sales the day after Thanksgiving. After a year of mediocre sales, they took this as an opportunity, offering steep discounts with the hopes of drawing in customers who would spend large sums of money. While this tale isn’t the reason behind Black Friday, it did help to build potential for a day dedicated to shopping. In fact, the history and evolution of Black Friday is far less glamorous than a couple of conniving bankers or thrifty retailers.
 
The Truth about Black Friday
 
Imagine Philadelphia in the 1950s. The city is swarming with people. But this isn’t the normal crowd. They’ve all found their way here in anticipation of the huge Army-Navy football game, which takes place on the Saturday following Thanksgiving every year. Authorities began referring to this day as “Black Friday” because of the chaos the crowds brought to the city every year. This Friday saw an influx of shoplifting, and retail workers were forced to work extra long hours to accommodate for the crowds. In turn, Philadelphia’s department stores and restaurants saw massive spikes in sales.
 
In later years, Philadelphia officials would change the name to “Big Friday” to avoid any negative connotation of “Black Friday.” Little did they know the name had already stuck. By the late 1980s, the term caught on with the rest of the country. Looping it with the belief that sales increased the day after Thanksgiving, retailers dubbed the Friday following Thanksgiving “Black Friday” and enhanced it with eye-catching discounts. It was an instant hit that transformed this day into a one-day shopping bonanza.
 
Since then, Black Friday has marked the unofficial beginning of the financial holiday season. In 2017, the average shopper spent $1,0007.24 each. Roughly $637. 67 of that was spent on presents, $215.04 on gift wrap, decorations, food, and holiday cards, and $154.53 was spent taking advantage of the seasonal deals.

Shoppers looking through a sale at Dayton’s Department Store. Reprinted from Dayton’s Department Store by Mary Firestone (pg. 79, Arcadia Publishing, 2007).Since its beginnings, Black Friday has remained steadfast in this country. Retailers continue to find new ways to lure in consumers and as a result watch their sales skyrocket. The popularity of Black Friday also inspired the creation of a series of other retail holidays, like Small Business Saturday.
 
Cyber Monday
 
Cyber Monday is Black Friday gone digital, and is thought to reflect the trend in recent years to digitize virtually every real-world experience. It was born from a collective of online marketing agencies in response to the increasingly popular Black Friday. Every Monday following Thanksgiving tremendous deals take over the web. In recent years, companies have reported their income on this day as much as doubling, and according to Adobe Analytics, more than half of Thanksgiving weekend’s purchases were made from a mobile device.
 
The first attempts at Cyber Monday didn’t draw the attraction online retailers had hoped, but with the ongoing transition from physical shopping to digital, Cyber Monday has evolved into an online phenomenon. Shoppers can avoid both crowds and waking up at an unsavory hour, and still complete their holiday shopping, all from their bed while sipping a fresh cup of coffee.
 
Now that more and more brick-and-mortar stores are closing their doors, it’s safe to say that online shopping has taken the world by storm. Consumers enjoy the convenience and ease of purchasing from their digital devices, securing Cyber Monday a place in the retail landscape for the foreseeable future.  
 
Americans spend around $6.6 million on Cyber Monday. In 2017, Cyber Monday became the biggest online shopping day in U.S. history. Adobe Analytics found that for the first time ever, mobile sales reached two million dollars within a 24-hour period.
 
While Black Friday has roots in American history, its digital companion Cyber Monday is still a relatively new player in the retail game. What these traditions evolve into next is anyone's guess.
 
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