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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

The History of Black Friday: Gold, Red, and Navy?

I started my adult journey wanting to be a lawyer. In the US Navy. An unplanned and unsanctioned bike ride and a run in with a car blocked that path. Without a "plan B", I wandered through a few years and stumbled into retail.

Yes, as Ron Thurston would put it, this is my "accidental" career!

This means that "Black Friday" has long been a part of my life. Whether on the front line of retail, or waiting to see how my product or brands sold, or reacting to website traffic, or measuring a particular marketing campaign, Thanksgiving has always meant turkey served with a side of checking my computer a dozen times for traffic trends, and getting up at "oh-dark-thirty" on Friday to tour stores. Especially given that this is the magical day when retailers move from "red" to "black", finally showing a profit.



If you read my last post, you know that our modern day Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, was highly influenced by a retailer. Fred Lazarus, founder of Federated Department Stores (eventually Macy's) convinced President Roosevelt that rather than stick with the traditional "last Thursday in November" as in years past, that with five Thursdays in 1939, moving Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday that year would help lift the nation out of the Depression. Since it was considered inappropriate to advertise Christmas and the holiday season prior to Thanksgiving, moving the holiday up one week would give merchants an additional week of selling and encourage consumers to spend more.

Nothing controversial there, right? Yeah, right. Well, let's move on and focus on "Black Friday"....

The term was actually used in 1869 and it had nothing to do with retail. It referred to Friday, September 24th when gold crashed and nearly everyone on Wall Street was left bankrupt. A black Friday indeed.

"Black Friday" was first used in reference to the day after Thanksgiving in the 1950's, and specifically in Philadelphia. Specifically by the police who grew concerned at the increased numbers of shoppers coming in from the suburbs coming in the day after Thanksgiving to shop, while others traveled in from across the country to attend the Army-Navy game that Saturday. The crush of traffic in the city on Friday, and the resulting rise in crime led to the day being referred to as "Black Friday." That's tough to advertise!

So challenging to advertise that by the early 1960's, local merchants had tried to recast the narrative, referring to the Friday after Thanksgiving as "Big Friday!" and eventually Saturday as "Big Saturday!" Ever heard those terms? Yeah, that is how successful their efforts were.

By the 1980's. the term had stuck and was pretty much used nationally and sometime in the late 80's, right about the time I was working part time in retail while attending college, someone managed to re-craft the narrative into the story that we've all adopted today - that Black Friday marks the day when retailers move out of the red and into the black. And for many years, we've been more than happy to help.

Pre-COVID, "Black Friday" was waining a bit with "Christmas in July", "Black Friday Prices NOW", and of course, CYBER MONDAY....and globally, have you ever heard of "Singles Day?"

Of course, from a personal perspective, I work with a US Navy command that happens to run a $2B retail operation open to our military personnel. Steeped in the purpose of saving our sailors money and improving their quality of life, we stopped using Black Friday back in 2012 when we were challenged by senior leadership to operate more like a command and less like a commercial retailer. A retired Captain had a couple of ideas...Navy is the New Black, and "Navy Blue Friday / Navy Blue Holiday"....thankfully the latter stuck and a decade later, I'd like to think we handle this weekend far better than our competitors.

So there you have it, named by the failure of gold, repurposed to some degree when the Army-Navy came to town, and re-crafted to play better in the "modern world". Along with our unique, and I think more purpose driven take on the "major shopping event" of the year.

Stay safe!! And I've already sent my letter to Santa...


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