So long, Black Friday

Don’t let the doorbusters hit you on the way out

By Adrianne Pasquarelli Illustration by Tam Nguyen. Published on November 6, 2020

So long, Black Friday

Don’t let the doorbusters hit you on the way out

By Adrianne Pasquarelli Illustration by Tam Nguyen. Published on November 6, 2020

Ahead of its official holiday campaign this year, Target released a series of Black Friday-themed ads in late October. But the ads didn’t direct consumers to promotions on Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving. Instead, the campaign encouraged customers to shop all through November for ongoing deals and surprises.

“Black Friday used to mean long lines and deals gone in a flash. That was Black Friday then. This is Black Friday now,” a voiceover on the TV commercial said. “This year, Target has Black Friday deals all November with new deals each week—in-store, and on So you can get all the Black Friday savings without all the Black Friday stress.”

The ad and others like it signify a tipping point in the steady demise of the five-decade-old shopping holiday, at least in the form of a one-day bonanza marked by long lines and crowded stores. Black Friday—for decades revered as an American capitalist tradition but also reviled for bringing out the worst in some shoppers as they push and shove their way through stores in search of elusive deals and merchandise—has been on the wane for years as online shopping rises in popularity. But the pandemic, which has dramatically altered shopping patterns, has seemingly dealt a fatal blow.

In recent years, digital sales have started creeping earlier and earlier in the season, while discounts for events including  “Cyber Monday” helped to lengthen the promotional period. The pandemic has driven even more people online—and out of stores—forcing marketers to up their e-commerce games. If Black Friday ends as we know it, experts say retailers should not mourn, because in recent years it has proven to be more of a logistical headache than a boon.

“Black Friday is the worst thing that marketers could do—it’s that one day a year when we treat all of our worst customers like royalty and spend all of this money, extra hours and services giving discounts knowing that they’re not going to be back again until next year at this time,” says Peter Fader, the Frances and Pei-Yuan Chia professor of marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “For the loyal regular customers, they suffer through the crowds and they get nothing good that enhances their relationship.” He notes that in the old days, retailers had no visibility into who was spending with them, but now, modern data tracking provides a glimpse of which customers will respond to deals and who is worth spending on when it comes to marketing dollars.

Stepping away from the day

Along with Target, several retailers have stepped away from Black Friday promotions this year as they strive to limit in-person crowds during the pandemic and make better use of e-commerce and new fulfillment services including curbside pickup. Lowe’s, Gap and Home Depot have publicized longer-lasting deals that exclude single Black Friday discounts.

“There will be no crush of shoppers based on doorbusters—as far as we’re concerned, that’s in the past,” says Marisa Thalberg, executive VP and chief brand and marketing officer at Lowe’s.

Gap began its holiday campaign in mid-October, weeks earlier than previous years, and is pushing consumers online rather than to stores.

“Black Friday is not going to be like Black Friday,” says Mary Alderete, chief marketing officer at Gap. “Even last year, we started to see in the industry people pulling it forward going more online, but online is the dominant channel now.”

Negative connotation

For a term associated with holiday cheer, “Black Friday” doesn’t have positive origins. Originally meant to signify a negative event, including the stock market crash of 1929 or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the term became connected to the holiday season in the early 1960s. At that time, five major department stores lined Market Street in Philadelphia, which would become overrun with crowds the day after Thanksgiving due to the Army Navy football game, according to Michael Lisicky, the author of department store history books “Gimbels Has It!” and “Wanamaker’s: Meet Me At the Eagle.” Consumers also turned out to see the department store windows, which were typically unveiled on Friday, which led to greater crowds. Later, in the 70s and 80s, Black Friday began its use as a promotional term to herald the sales of the holiday season. One common myth about Black Friday is that the day signals the time when a retailer’s sales rise from the red to the profitable black, but Lisicky says there is no historical evidence supporting that claim.

“The allure, the romantic aspect of Black Friday is not there—it just was an interoffice term that had a negative connotation,” says Lisicky. “It was about crowd control.”

Black Friday through the years
The five-decade-old holiday might finally be over, at least as we know it. Tap or hover over each period to learn more

When stores including Kmart started opening on Thanksgiving Day in the early 90s, Black Friday began to lose significance. In addition, the internet’s arrival a few years later began siphoning sales away from brick-and-mortar store sales, and led to the rise of things like Cyber Monday and online shopping deals.

“Black Friday has become very homogenous,” says Lisicky. “It’s just another name of a sale.”

It has also emerged as a lightning rod in some parts of the country, with protesters using the day to demonstrate against consumerism or to call for action on climate change or racial justice. In 2015, thousands of people marched along Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” Michigan Avenue shopping district, using the day to protest the shooting death of a black teenager by a white policeman; similar demonstrations occurred in subsequent years.

Distancing act

Some purpose-minded retailers have actively distanced themselves from Black Friday. In 2015, REI announced its stores would close on the day after Thanksgiving; the brand encouraged customers to spend time outdoors instead of shopping. Many applauded the effort, which they said exemplified purpose over profit, at a time when consumers, and younger generations in particular, were looking for more meaningful action from brands.

“It was a huge success,” says Fader. “Many other retailers admired the boldness and execution of it.”

By holding Amazon Prime Day, its annual two-day promotional event, in October this year, rather than July per usual, Amazon is also helping to overhaul the holiday shopping calendar. Many purchases made during Prime Day this year were holiday related, experts say, as consumers got a jump start on their gifting by taking advantage of the retail giant’s annual discounts.

Shoppers stand in line outside a Target store in Westbury, New York, in November.

“Before COVID, we were seeing Black Friday become less important as people shopped online—there was also somewhat of a backlash against excess,” says Steve Horwitz, an economics professor at Ball State University. “But e-commerce is the bigger driver here. People were beginning to do their shopping online—who wants to go battle the crowds? Now with COVID, we’ve got a whole other set of things to deal with. No retailer wants Black Friday to turn into the Black Plague; you don’t want to be a super-spreading event.”

Early predictions

Already, some signs are pointing to a healthier holiday spending season for retailers than many expected during a pandemic. That’s helped by the early amount of promotions, which retailers might have a hard time delaying again in a post-COVID world. Market research firm NPD Group is predicting a year-over-year holiday sales increase of between 4.3% and 5.1% for the new holiday period that began in mid-October. NPD expects the old traditional period of November through December to have a smaller increase of 2.5% to 3.4%

According to Adobe Analytics, 33% of consumers plan to have their holiday shopping completed by Black Friday this year.

“It’s kind of one of those places that, if you’re going across the state, people ask, ‘Did you stop at Wall Drug?’ If you say no, they’re a little bit disappointed.”

While electronics typically perform well during Black Friday sales because of steep discounts on big-ticket items including TVs and appliances, retail experts say this year, consumers might still be inclined to spend even without single-day doorbusters. Already, home improvement retailers including Lowe’s have seen sales rise as shoppers focus on home projects and outfitting desk setups for themselves and their children. Adobe expects that the best day for electronics deals will be Dec. 18, though some TVs will also be marked down on Black Friday and the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

“The resurgence of COVID-19, and the associated resignation that we’ll be WFH deep into 2021, will encourage people to invest in replacements, upgrades and new equipment,” says Fader. “The cost, and necessity, of a fancy new TV can easily be justified by the realization that you won’t be going to any movies, concerts, or sporting events for a while,” he adds.

As the season stretches out, retailers need to make sure they are prepared with inventory and distribution. In the past, Black Friday meant having merchandise available on that day—now, retailers need to ensure that they have stock available earlier and delivery in place, which can be a challenge. Horwitz notes that some consumers might be delivering gifts to loved ones they won’t be seeing in person this year, which could further tax retailers’ delivery systems and also affect the timing of shipping deadlines.

“Retailers are going to have to really think about not just what stuff do customers need but how do they want to buy it and how do they want to get it,” he says.

The unraveling of Black Friday could lead to other opportunities for marketers in the future. Experts say brands should be personalizing their offers based on a customer’s shopping habits and timing. In addition, stores could offer special hours and services for loyal customers on shopping days, such as the evening of Thanksgiving or the Friday after, in a concierge-type service, Fader says.

“We can turn what was Black Friday to a day to celebrate the best customers, instead of the worst,” he says. Adage End Bug

Web production by Corey Holmes. Images: Bloomberg LP, Target