“Black Friday” is an evocative phrase — it conjures images of shoppers wildly scouring the malls and the big-box stores for amazing bargains, people camping out before stores open in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes unmanageable crowds, a fever pitch of excitement and people fighting over discounted consumer goods. Simply put, it’s the biggest shopping day of the year. Or is it?

Figures from ShopperTrak indicate that Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year, every year between 2003 and 2010 with the exception of 2004. In 2004, ShopperTrak data indicates that the Saturday before Christmas was the year’s busiest shopping day, with Black Friday in second place. However, looking back before 2003, Black Friday has not historically been the busiest shopping day of the year. Between 1993 and 2001, ShopperTrak indicates Black Friday was never the busiest shopping day of the year – it was usually somewhere between the fifth-busiest and tenth-busiest shopping day, with the Saturday before Christmas typically remaining the busiest shopping day of the year.

So, we can see that Black Friday has only recently become one of the three busiest shopping days of the year, and there are many possible reasons that the 24 hours of Black Friday itself is becoming less important in terms of the overall holiday-shopping season in the United States. Firstly, Black Friday itself has become spread out over the whole weekend following Thanksgiving. Until relatively recently, stores would not open until Friday morning, with a gradual creep forward in opening hours. Early opening for Black Friday has now effectively crept into Thursday, Thanksgiving itself, with more stores opting for midnight opening. Black Friday sales typically run through the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, too, diluting overall shopper numbers over the Thursday through Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend.

The growth of online retail has also diluted Black Friday’s importance as a 24-hour shopping frenzy. The Monday following Thanksgiving has been branded as “Cyber Monday”, with online retailers offering special sales. For the tech-savvy shopper, browsing bargains via a home computer or mobile device is attractive by comparison with camping out in the November cold to battle other shoppers for in-store bargains. An IBM report regarding online sales during Black Friday 2011 and 2012 finds that online retail figures are increasing year on year, with the average per-person spend also increasing. Online shopping does not have the same “opening hours” as physical stores, and so browsing online shops has spread out beyond just “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday.” In particular, the online auction site eBay sees significant traffic and shopping on the evening of Thanksgiving day itself.

Black Friday has been losing importance relative to the overall holiday shopping season, as the shopping season itself has expanded. In the past, retail and promotional cycles were tied to specific months – back to school promotions gave way to Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas. Now, it is common for holiday advertisements, retail promotions and sales to appear as early as September or October, well before Black Friday. This has diluted consumer anticipation of Black Friday, as they know that holiday-season discounts and sales may well be offered well before November, and also during the month of December.

Online retailing has also spread out the holiday shopping season in general, both in terms of the calendar year and in terms of geography. The big-box retailers and manufacturers that have traditionally driven the Black Friday frenzy have often done so through creating a “false scarcity” of certain products. For example, certain newly-introduced children’s toys, or games consoles, will be made available in limited numbers initially. Often this is done to stimulate consumer desire for these mass-produced goods. Online retailing, and a newly global marketplace, has to some degree shown consumers that false scarcity is a scam.

In economically-tough times, consumers are becoming more savvy about retail manipulations around the Black Friday tradition. The media and the retail industry collude in a kind of vicious cycle surrounding Black Friday – media reports the day as the year’s biggest shopping day, and as a predictor of the overall success of the upcoming holiday season’s retail figures. As we have seen, Black Friday is not historically the busiest shopping day of the year, and as the holiday season in retail becomes stretched out, globalized and diversified, Black Friday sales no longer predict holiday sales overall. In March 2013, a spokesperson for Gallup indicated that consumers remain cautious and thrifty in uncertain economic times, and the amount spent on Black Friday does not correlate with overall holiday spending results.

Black Friday has become something of a cultural sideshow, hyped by the media. Like some annual sporting event, the tradition has become an almost theatrical event in the national psyche. We will likely continue to tune into media coverage of the shopping frenzy, wondering what extremes of shopper behavior and violence will take place this year. Most consumers watch the store-based sideshow vicariously via the media, while carefully shopping from home throughout a stretched-out holiday shopping season.

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Image: John Henderson / Flickr: Source