By Scott Jacobs

shoppersWho comes up with this stuff anyway? Black Friday. Bargains galore. The biggest shopping day of the year. The kick off to a frenzy of holiday shopping.

Is any of it true? Only in the minds of people who want it to be, and the hapless television newscasters forced to work the holiday shift surrounded by “Doorbuster Sales” from the retailers who pay the freight on these newsless weekends.

As I recall my history, Black Friday used to be a term reserved for calamitous events and/or financial ruin. It was a fateful Black Friday in 1929 when the stock market crashed, sending brokers off rooftops, and another Black Friday in 1989 when it crashed again, sending day traders back to the dealership to trade in their BMW’s.

So why do we now kick off the joyous holiday season with a Black Friday?

According to no less an authority than Wikipedia, Philadelphia police were the first to use the expression in 1965. Faced with the traditional downtown traffic jams caused by holiday shopping between Thanksgiving Thursday and the Saturday Army-Navy football game, a police spokesman called it a “Black Friday” for officers working the streets. Philadelphia newspapers knew a good hook when they saw one and perpetrated the term year after year, much the same way Chicago newspapers marked the same day with the evergreen headline “Millions Jam Loop.”

Mythical Roots

Philadelphia merchants, meanwhile, were never enthralled by kicking off the holiday season like it was the plague, so they looked for a better backstory. In 1981, a storeowner in the Cherry Hill Mall tried to put a more cheerful spin on the name for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Black Friday, she claimed, really signifies the day retailers see their yearly bottom line go from red to black. But that’s pure poppycock.

Although the Christmas season obviously contributes heavily to retail sales, there is no direct correlation between profit and the day after Thanksgiving. If Black Friday, indeed, marks the first day of profitable operations, most stores this year probably will have to wait until next January to hold it.

There are other equally specious explanations for the name. I know young shoppers who think Black Friday takes its name from the 2008 Walmart “Doorbuster Riot” where a Walmart clerk was trampled to death by shoppers who broke through the store’s glass doors in Valley Stream, New York minutes before the store’s scheduled opening at 5 AM; and I know veteran store clerks who say it to describes the ugly crowds that descend like locusts on the malls after Thanksgiving to make their lives miserable.

My own theory is that Black Friday became a national holiday when––trying to steal a march on the Internet’s “Cyber Monday” sale––renamed its standard Friday advance promotion as “Black Friday” in 2006.  The promotion worked so well that Walmart, Sears and other online retailers picked up the idea the next year, and since Internet sales are now leading the Christmas parade, migrated it over to their bricks-and-mortar stores where the very traffic jams Philadelphia patrolmen loathed on “Black Friday” are now seen as a sign of our eagerness to get on with the Christmas season.

Every Day is Black Friday

For all the trumped up sales and get-em-while-they-last pitches, Black Friday is still not the biggest shopping day of the year. That honor is usually reserved for the Saturday before Christmas when late shoppers (count me among them) will spend anything to cover all the bases under the tree.

Relentless promotion has driven the volume of shoppers in the stores after Thanksgiving up from 10th place in the 1990’s to 2nd place in recent years (and even #1 in 2003 and 2005.) But unless 2009 is indeed a truly dismal year for retailers, the modest gains in this year’s Black Friday sales indicate it will fall back to its usual runner-up status before the year is out.

One reason, as smart shoppers know, is that what’s on sale the first day of the shopping season will probably stay on sale throughout, and may even get marked down more. The advertising circulars that swelled the Thanksgiving editions of local newspapers were meant to get the shopping juices flowing and bring traffic into the stores. What you pay when you get there, especially in these hard economic times, is whatever it takes to close the deal.

Sears is already running ads promising Black Friday prices from now to Christmas, proving once again that in a recession every day is Black Friday. And when Christmas is over, watch for Boxing Day, or as we call it in America, “Returns Day” –– when you turn in the useless stuff you got for Christmas for what you really wanted.

Bah, humbug. Let the Christmas shopping season begin.

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