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What’s the Story? Black Friday

It sounds grim doesn’t it? – Black Friday – like the Black Death or black moods or a little black book. Image: christmaspostingdates.com The thing is, we have fallen madly in love with this American import ...

It sounds grim doesn’t it? – Black Friday – like the Black Death or black moods or a little black book.

Image: christmaspostingdates.com

The thing is, we have fallen madly in love with this American import – just like that, in the blink of an eye, it is now a ‘thing’ in Britain too. But what exactly is it and how did it start? There’s more than one answer to that question.

Image: livescience.com
On every fourth Thursday of November Americans get together to celebrate Thanksgiving – a day on which they celebrate the help the Pilgrim Fathers got from native Americans to survive their first tough winter in the New World. It’s a sort of harvest festival, of gratitude for all the good things they have. The next day is also a holiday and the perfect excuse to go out and buy more stuff. In commercial terms  “Black Friday” might refer to the single day of the year when retail companies finally go “into the black” (i.e. make a profit).
Image from: bgr.com
The term “Black Friday” was first applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869.  Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street dealers  worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy unravelled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers. But clearly this does not explain the November phenomenon.
Then there’s the racial root of the story which claims that Southern plantation owners in the 1800’s could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. As you can imagine many people found it unacceptable to base a holiday on such a vile practice –  but fortunately it turned out to be completely untrue.
 Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi –  image en.wikipedia.org
It is generally accepted though that the true story behind Black Friday comes from Philadelphia and dates back to the 1950s when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year.
Philadelphia 1930s Black Friday crowd.

They caused mayhem and the city police force cancelled all leave to cope with this black day of the year as far as law and order was concerned.  In 1961 someone in the city tried to change the name to Big Friday but it didn’t catch on – in fact the idea of a shopping bonanza didn’t really take off anywhere until in the late 1980s. Retailers saw an opportunity to make hay and sold the cosy ‘red to black’ story to consumers.

And what about us – when and why did Britain join in the fun? Blame it on American retail giants – the first of which was Amazon who advertised Black Friday discounts in 2010.

Amazon fulfilment centre Hemel Hempstead

After that it was just a question of time. Currys & PC World offered an online price crash during the weekend of Black Friday in 2012 and last year John Lewis was rather forced to engage with it, bound by its price match guarantee to meet competitors’ offers. When American owned Asda started its own Black Friday discounts the flood gates were well and truly opened and it really took off. You may or may not want black Friday –  but it is clearly another imported phenomenon which is here to stay.



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