Beginning well before midnight on Thursday, in malls throughout the nation, the lifeblood of the American economy - the consumers - will start queuing up outside the locked entrances of various retail stores, forming longer and longer lines, clutching ads and lists and coupons, sipping coffee and hot chocolate, rubbing their hands and stomping their feet for warmth, exciting each other with anticipatory chatter, and waiting, waiting for the clock to strike the appointed hour, the clerk to open the door and the shopping, the longed-for bargain shopping to at last commence.
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has become in recent decades a new, uniquely American holiday, like Super Bowl Sunday.
Indeed, about 100 million people watch the Super Bowl, but most of them are warm, ensconced on couches, munching Buffalo wings and drinking beer, while the 75 million Black Friday shopping devotees have braved the cold and the dark of night and the elbows of their fellow shoppers for the prize of schlepping home a bunch of ungainly boxes - who, I ask you, are the tougher fans?
Like so many traditions, Black Friday is shrouded in myth. Much of what you may think you know, isn't so.
Every holiday season, you will hear people say that Black Friday derives its name from the fact that, because of the boost in sales experienced on the day, retailers are able for the first time in the year to move out of the red - that is, debt -- and into the black, or profit. The old accounting methods used red ink for the debit side of the ledger and black ink for the asset side.
That's a cute, plausible explanation of how the name came about. It's just not accurate.
According to a host of sources, including newspapers from the era, the name took hold in Philadelphia, in the 1970's. The streets and sidewalks of the City of Brotherly Love became so packed with traffic and crowds on the day after Thanksgiving that the local police looked forward to that day with dread and gloom. The Philadelphia police coined the phrase, calling it Black Friday, in the same way ruined investors called the day of the 1929 stock market crash Black Tuesday.
Gloomy notions do not, as a rule, inspire happy shopping. So, a short time later, some clever marketing fellow apparently attached the accounting book sense to the term to give it a positive spin. It stuck.
Les Morris, director of Public Relations for the Simon Property Group, the world's largest owner of shopping centers, said the out-of-the-red/into-the-black idea about Black Friday may have been valid a number of years ago, but not so much anymore.
There is still a rhythm to the business year, Morris said. Retailers still shutter their doors after the holiday season and see how they did. But that the big shopping day after Thanksgiving brings you from the red into the black, I just don't think that's the case in most instances anymore.
Which brings us to another myth. It feels almost sacrilegious to say it - I mean, with all those 75 million consumers out there trying so hard - but, here goes:
Black Friday is not the most lucrative shopping day of the year. It is usually not the second or third or even fourth most lucrative day.
According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, the busiest shopping day of the year, year after year, is the last Saturday before Christmas, sometimes called Procrastination Saturday. The last two weekends before Christmas usually comprised the four busiest shopping days of the year.
Black Friday may often be the busiest shopping day in terms of customer traffic, but many Black Friday warriors are in a store for one on-sale item or two and out again into the night.
One or two items? But what about all those holiday gift lists that people on Black Friday are merrily checking off as they go a-purchasing?
Another myth: most people are not playing Santa on Black Friday. According to the ICSC, nearly 75 percent of the articles purchased on Black Friday are not for holiday gift-giving but for personal or family use.
But people are coming out, en masse, for those items, and for that 25 percent of holiday gift items, and coming out in greater numbers every year.
According to a special national consumer poll commissioned by the ICSC and Goldman Sachs, 31 percent of households plan to shop on Black Friday in 2010, compared with 26 percent in 2009. The strongest driver of Black Friday shopping is children, as 43 percent of households with kids are planning to shop on that day. In addition, 37 percent of households reported that they plan to shop on the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving.
With consumers further behind on their holiday shopping than in recent years, Black Friday shopping will likely be intense this year, said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist and director of research for ICSC.
Climbing slowly out of the Great Recession, American consumers are still being cautious about their spending habits, but are expected to loosen the purse strings more this year than last, according to an ICSC report.
The organization estimates that 28 percent of consumers are ready to spend more in 2010 than in 2009, and that they are likely to spend most of it on their children. Consumers are not talking about cutting back in spending so much as holding steady, with shoppers aged 18 to 34 the most likely to spend more. Women shoppers, the report found, while remaining cautious, are also likely to be on the lookout for special offers and sales.
The ICSC/Goldman Sachs survey found that the top three holiday gifts for 2010 will likely be clothing, which is typically the top gift, with over 69 percent of consumers citing apparel items this year, followed by gift cards with 65 percent, and toys and games with 63 percent.
Consumer electronics, at 45 percent, was the sixth most popular gift item, helped by electronic book readers, cited by 11 percent of consumers, and computer tablets, also named by 11 percent of consumers, the survey reported.
Retailers, of course, have gotten the news and have tailored their blitz of bargains and offers to suit the demographic most likely to respond.
Retailers may not need the day following Thanksgiving and the subsequent holiday season to move from the red into the black, but they need a successful shopping period to stay in the black. At least since President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, noting that people are prone to forget the source from which their bounty comes, proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be a national day of Thanksgiving, merchants have been putting out their holiday wares, and holiday displays, on the following day.
That is why Santa Claus, starting in 1924, comes to town each year as the last participant in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, to symbolize the start of the Christmas shopping season. And that is why the streets of Philadelphia - not to mention all the other U.S. cities - became so packed that the police gave the day its special name.
In 1939, members of the business community actually persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up a week - to the third Thursday in November - to give them an extra week of holiday activity. Franksgiving, as the day was derisively tagged, messed up enough family travel and dampened enough holiday cheer that Congress, in 1941, made the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving by federal law.
Businesses, by their nature, press for their advantage. Holiday advertising is inevitably beginning earlier every year. Yet the all-important consumers do not seem to jump in in a big way until Black Friday. Even here, businesses pushed it to the edge of the clock. A decade ago, retailers were opening at 6 a.m. and 5 a.m. Now, many of the big stores are opening at the stroke of midnight. The crowds queued up in dark parking lots across the country are confirmation that consumers are onboard with the early hour.
Anecdotally, I see Black Friday getting bigger every year, Simon Property's Morris said. I have more and more of our smaller tenants coming to me and asking to be included in media kits and that I let the media know that they will be opening early. They all want in on it.
Black Friday has taken on a life of its own, Morris said. People really seem to like the whole experience. It's an event. It's become a tradition. It's a lot of fun.