5 Black Friday Myths the Media Wants You to Believe
The alarms start going off at 3:30 in the morning. Soon-to-be shoppers stumble angrily out of bed with fanny packs of coupons strapped to their waists. Coffee begins working its way through the Thanksgiving-themed traffic jam in your entrails. Showers are neglected. Puppies are kicked. Bleary-eyed motorists start pulling out of driveways, and it becomes official. The Holiday Shopping Season has begun.
Even if you don't make the trip to the mall every Black Friday, you probably assume everyone out there is fighting through waves of toy riots and security guards to be the first ones in line. In reality, most of what you believe about Black Friday is a myth, right down to the day it falls on.
It's the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year
What You Think:
Why else would the local news cover something as boring as shopping? You also may have heard, or just assumed, that online shopping was taking a bite out of Black Friday's lead over every other day of the year. This makes sense because it offers an alternative for people who don't want to suffer through long lines and threats of death by stampede. Just shop from home on any other day of the year, right?
"I've already been at this two hours and I've only had to gouge one person's eyes out!"
But Actually ...
Actually, Black Friday wasn't the biggest shopping day of the year until the advent of online shopping. Before that, it was rarely even in the top five.
So why was the media paying so much attention to the fifth-biggest shopping day of the year? Well, partially because it's a slow news day. With most people off from work and spending time at home with their family, the media has a captive audience and approximately nothing to talk about. So they began reporting on the one sector of the economy that was actually working (instead of pretending to work while totally mailing it in, like the media).
"I'll be honest, guys, I'm not even sure what city this is."
Of course, stories about how everyone's out spending money weren't drawing complaints from the advertisers.
Black Friday finally did become the top revenue earner in 2003 by giving people who would rather stay home with their family a way to get at the deals. Weirdly, 2003 was right around when the media started reporting the idea that Black Friday was in trouble, and telling us about new players in the game like Cyber Monday -- the Monday after Thanksgiving, when online sales (or "cyber sales," as they're called by absolutely no one) supposedly spike.
Here's a good rule of thumb: If someone you know regularly uses the term "cyber," punch them and never stop.
So the story that the media had been reporting for years that Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year finally came true, and suddenly they want to complicate it with a bunch of other days when you have to remember to wear riot gear to the mall.
This is because of a new strategy among retailers to make holiday shopping into a four-week period. While Walmart holds the record for earliest holiday promotion with a special roll back on October 1, the majority of stores begin their bargains the first week of November.
This picture was actually shot in July.
Cyber Monday was created in 2005 as a crafty marketing plan from Shop.org, an association for "e-tailers." Shop.org encouraged their members to create special ads for that Monday, and after a few years it caught on. In 2010, Cyber Monday took in over a billion dollars in online revenue, the largest amount for any day in history.
Presumably, when Cyber Monday officially takes the biggest shopping day title from Black Friday, we'll start hearing about how Cyber Monday is in danger of losing its spot as the hottest shopping day of the year to "Tip Jar Tuesdays," when consumers just empty their wallets into jars by the cash register.
"Dump your cash on the pile and piss right off."
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It Turns Americans into Sale-Crazed Lunatics
What You Think:
Before going near a retail store on Black Friday, you should make sure your life insurance is paid up. If the news is any indication, you're going to be dealing with a bunch of feral materialists. Every year brings more tales of shoppers fighting or killing each other. It's as if the entire country is driven CRAZY by these great deals, but instead of slashing prices like the owner of Crazy Eddie's mattress emporium, they're taking it out on each other.
"I'll cut you so hard!"
But Actually ...
It seems like people are more violent on Black Friday because the national media doesn't pay attention to violence at retail stores until it happens on Black Friday. Wesley Strellis walked into a Walmart a little after noon, picked up a metal bat from the sporting goods section, carried it to electronics and methodically destroyed 29 flat screen TVs. There's the case of the 55-year-old man who punched a 72-year-old store greeter in the face for asking to see his receipt, and the guy who walked into a Walmart and pissed on a case of steaks. And who can forget the man who lit three racks of clothes on fire in the men's department when Walmart wouldn't let him return an item. There are crazy people in this world who do crazy things. Often times at Walmart. CNN didn't report on any of those stories because why would they?
"Ho-hum, just another March gunfight at the mall."
There's also the fact that the story has a tendency to change in the retelling. Like all news stories about crazed shoppers, Neatorama's five-entry list of Black Friday Bloodshed includes the 2008 shooting at a Toys "R" Us that started with a brawl between two women and left two men dead. You have to click through to their source to find out that the initial brawl was caused by a pre-existing personal dispute, and that the shooting was believed to be gang-related.
For some reason, CNN decided to report the gang killing in the same story as the one and only death ever linked to the shopping rush, though even that isolated incident is hard to pin on the shoppers. It happened at a Walmart door buster sale -- a retail stunt specifically designed to create a spectacle of frenzied competition over a fixed number of big deals. Retail chains like Best Buy and even certain Walmart outlets hold these every year without anyone getting hurt. If everything is handled properly, it's a good way to get your store on the local news. That year, the Walmart at Green Acres Mall in New York decided to see what would happen if everything was handled in the worst way possible.
"This year, we're going to try something new and just stop giving a shit."
First of all, it wasn't the ideal place to hold a stunt that is designed to foster aggressive competition. In addition to being known as the "car theft capital of Long Island," the mall's other claim to fame was a shooting in which two groups of teenagers opened fire on each other during a screening of The Godfather III. Instead of hiring security to help police the free-for-all they were holding in the dark at their crime hotspot of a shopping location, the shoppers who camped outside the store all night were taunted by a handful of inexperienced Walmart employees who were put on crowd control duties. As the sale was about to begin, the crowd outside began pushing against the sliding glass doors, and employees on the inside began pushing back to keep the doors from bowing inward. The combined force of the crowd shattered one of the doors, and the crowd poured in, crushing a 6' 5" employee trapped under the door.
It was a horrible tragedy, and it could have easily been prevented. But on any other day of the year, it would have been a story about a horribly run store and the terrible power of crowds. But since it was on Black Friday, it has been used as a way to infuse the moral of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas with the post-apocalyptic violence of The Road Warrior.
It would take a shotgun and sleigh to get through this.
Black Friday Is the Day After Thanksgiving
What You Think:
OK, this is clearly not a myth. Thanksgiving happens, and then Black Friday. But you probably think Black Friday is determined by the date that Thanksgiving falls on. All the cooking and eating is out of the way, and as an unintentional side effect of that, we get to start Christmas shopping.
But Actually ...
Actually, the day we celebrate Thanksgiving is determined by the day the retailers decide will make a good Black Friday. The start of the holiday shopping season is both more official and harder to move than the holiday it follows. That means when ranking their order of importance to our country, a national day of shopping beats a national day of gratitude. Not quite as surprising when we put it like that, right?
"I can't wait until we ditch all this family togetherness bullshit for some new electronics."
Thanksgiving originally didn't have a set date. George Washington proclaimed the first one on November 26, 1789, but the dates and even months changed for almost a century. Abraham Lincoln gave it a regular berth in 1863 as the last Thursday of November. It never occurred to Honest Abe that November sometimes has five Thursdays, and that this would create a problem down the road.
You'd think a man with a head that large would have some foresight.
One of those Novembers with five Thursdays happened in 1939, when the United States was recovering from the Great Depression. At that time, waiting until after Thanksgiving to start the holiday shopping season was seen as almost holy, but Thanksgiving fell on the very last day of the month. A short number of Christmas shopping days, starting on December 1, could hurt the recovering economy. That's why President Franklin Roosevelt had to put Turkey Day in its place.
A presidential proclamation was issued moving Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday of November. Thirty-two states went along with FDR and issued the same proclamation, while the other 16 states said "fuck that." For two years, a third of the U.S. celebrated Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, while the other two-thirds of the country celebrated it on the second-to-last Thursday. For family members living in opposing states, this was a very short, lethargic version of the Civil War.
"And may the Lord protect us from our decadent neighbors."
In 1941, Congress told FDR to knock that shit off and passed a resolution setting a fixed date for Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. The Senate, reminding them that there was shopping at stake, amended it to declare Thanksgiving as being on the fourth Thursday to get rid of the occasional five-Thursday problem.
Thus it was settled that the most important part of the holiday season is having a standard, sensible number of days in which to buy shit. Then we said "fuck it" and started the holiday shopping season in October.
"Have you bought a gift for your jack-o'-lantern yet?"
It's Good for Everyone
What You Think:
Black Friday is a time when you can earn big savings and the stores can earn big profits. Everyone is a winner!
"This $499 TV is saving me money."
But Actually ...
You might not save any money, and the stores might not make a profit.
If you see an advertisement for a giant discount on a big-ticket electronic item, you might think that you can snatch up the bargain as long as you're one of the very first people in line. Think again. While "door busters" sometimes list the number of items available, say 100, many advertisements don't list a quantity at all. Stores may only stock a couple of the items, just so they can run the ad. Some may not stock the item at all. In 2010, a Walmart in Alabama stocked zero of the Xbox systems they advertised at $199. A Sears in the same town didn't stock any of the gaming systems they listed as door busters, despite telling customers the items had come in that Tuesday.
Those are all actually display units. But they were half off!
Many retailers will put a "Black Friday" sticker on items that aren't discounted any more than they have been for weeks. Expect to run into "Black Friday" and even "lowest price ever" labels that mean absolutely nothing. Stores also use the shopping holiday to get rid of the excess inventory that hasn't sold yet.
If you think all this customer screwing means that the retail executives are just lounging around lighting cigars with $100 bills, think again. The educated customer can still get incredible deals, and savvy consumers are becoming less of a minority. A dedicated Black Friday website can help you plan ahead. Facebook and Twitter can alert you to the best sales. Black Friday apps can compare prices at the touch of a button. All this increased competition cuts into profits for retailers. In 2010, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. recommended that their readers sell off all stocks held for retailers before Black Friday. They predicted that disappointing holiday sales would lead to a decrease in stock prices in most retail chains between Black Friday and January.
We're not even sure who is screwing who anymore.
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The Name Has a Special Meaning
What You Think:
A common explanation of the name "Black Friday" is that is has to do with accounting. In older accounting practices, negative numbers were written in red ink and positive numbers in black ink. Thus, a business losing money is "in the red" and a profitable business is "in the black." Black Friday is supposedly the first day many stores turn a profit for the year.
"No more cat food for a whole two months!"
But Actually ...
In reality, Black Friday earned its name because it sucks. The term was coined in Philadelphia in 1966. "Black" was an adjective given to disastrous days in history. "Black Friday" also refers to the stock market crash in 1929 that started the Great Depression, as well as a flood in Cincinnati in 1937.
And an unsuccessful Allied air attack in 1945. Never forget.
In 1966, the Philadelphia police hated the first day of the holiday shopping season because of the massive traffic jams and the packed sidewalks it caused. Also, presumably because they wished they could be off from work like everyone else. Frazzled retail workers and exhausted shoppers were more than willing to accept the term.
The red ink/black ink explanation was never heard of until the early 1980s. Store owners who were satisfied with their sales started to become disturbed by the negative-sounding nickname. The president of Strawbridge & Clothier (bought out by Macy's in 2005) said, "It sounds like the end of the world, and we really like the day. If anything it should be called 'Green Friday.'" Another department store executive was even more hot and bothered, calling the name "the most disgusting thing I've ever heard. Why would anyone call a day, when everyone is happy and has smiles on their faces, Black Friday?"
"Who doesn't love this?"
Realizing that a name associated with national disasters might hurt net sales, the more optimistic explanation was encouraged by retailers. Campaigns spinning that the day made you max out all of your "love cards" and commit "funicide" were less successful, but at least the name stuck. A few decades later, even the New York Times is convinced.
Geoff Young also writes tennis articles and editorials, which you can find here.
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