Redefining Black Friday

Black Friday has become a retail holiday without a purpose, so this year there are several efforts to connect a new purpose or meaning to Black Friday.

One way to measure the problem with Black Friday is by looking at how few retailers want to use the term in their advertising. This year, retailers found some ludicrous euphemisms to lean on, implying a connection to Black Friday and the associated Thanksgiving without using either term. The most successful was Black Week, a slightly improved version of the old and nonsensical Black Friday Week. I have to assume that the late changes were the result of market research that showed that the more sought-after shoppers were trying to avoid any shopping at all in connection with Thanksgiving or the days surrounding it.

Chances are, though, the same consumers who were offended by shopping events on Thanksgiving are also going to avoid the Gravy Sale. There is more to saving Black Friday than changing the names.

The most successful initiative this year is an attempt to remind shoppers to visit Black-owned businesses on Black Friday. There were several organized national and metro-area campaigns that did not appear to be coordinated with each other. One used the name Black Shop Friday. Promotional support from payment processing businesses were behind some of these campaigns to rescue Black Friday.

The best promotions were ones that, like the black-owned business theme, made use of the words of Black Friday while ignoring most of its history. At one record company, Black Friday meant sale pricing on phonograph records pressed in the traditional black vinyl. A custom-printing store promoted selected items printed in blank ink.

How did Black Friday go in stores? The early statistics were mixed, but indicated a boost in customer traffic but a sharp drop in revenue compared to the year before. Anecdotes bear this out. I heard from people who went from store to store. They found crowded stores but short lines at checkout. None of the Black Friday shoppers I talked to had made any purchases themselves.

Amazon briefly appeared to a bright spot on Black Friday when it issued a statement that claimed its highest-ever one-day revenue. This encouraging report did not stand up when the next day it was reissuing many of the limited-time sale items it had offered only during designated hours on Black Friday after these items had failed to sell out as planned.

To be sure, it is a strange shopping season. The recent trend of customers shopping for Christmas before October 1 became large enough to show up in the totals for the first time this year. Indications from retailers and shipping companies that Christmas orders could take longer than a month to deliver must have encouraged shoppers to start early and deterred Thanksgiving weekend online purchases that might or might not be delivered in time for Christmas. Global supply shortages affecting many products made retailers reluctant to plan on price cuts that might lead to bare shelves. An ongoing pandemic that will surely show up in a new post-Black Friday spike in cases and deaths also affects the way shoppers think about shopping.

A separate confounding factor is the Great Resignation which has seen millions of workers turning away from traditional ideas of work and consumption. According to the people in this movement, the rewards of the things you can buy are not worth the levels of risk and humiliation that go with most jobs. People who no longer have jobs breaking them down no longer need shopping therapy to heal those wounds.

Black Friday as we knew it is broken. The lengths that retailers went to redefine it are a sign of how broken it is. The disappointment of shoppers, some of whom are pinning their back-to-normal hopes on the holiday season, when they went looking for a traditional Black Friday and came up empty also shows that this old idea is not holding up.

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