HOW DID FRIDAY TURN BLACK?
ANNA DOROTHEA KER
EVER WONDERED WHAT’S BEHIND BLACK FRIDAY?
Over the past decade, the American holiday of Thanksgiving has become increasingly eclipsed by the day following: Black Friday, one of the US’s most significant shopping occasions. The discount frenzy isn’t limited to one day any longer, instead spilling out to a long weekend bargain hunting marathon, from ‘Grey Thursday’ to ‘Cyber Monday’. Thanks to the global reach of online retail giants like Amazon, the concept of limited-time discounts has also expanded far beyond North America’s borders – into Western Europe and beyond. In China, for example, Alibaba’s Single’s Day has far eclipsed its US counterpart, netting $1 billion in sales during its first 68 seconds in 2018.
HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN?
Before it became associated with retail sales, ‘Black Friday’ referred to a late 19th century financial crisis: Friday, September 24th 1869, the day the US stock market crashed after two Wall Street financiers invested heavily in US gold in the hope of pushing up the price to generate huge profits. The day their scheme collapsed – and bankrupted many – earned the label ‘Black Friday’. Eighty years later, in 1950s Philadelphia, police used the term to reference the day before a big yearly Army-Navy football match, when masses of shoppers would flood into the city, causing huge crowds, traffic chaos and increased shoplifting. The term’s negative law enforcement connotations prevailed until the late 1980s, when ‘Black Friday’ was coopted by retailers nationwide to denote the day after Thanksgiving – when retailers slashed prices and turned profits (‘went in the black’) after operating at a loss (‘in the red’) all year.
WHAT’S A DISCOUNT WORTH?
The surge in online shopping over the past decade has seen the modern meaning of Black Friday gather exponential traction. During Black Friday weekend 2018 in the US, 89 million people shopped online and in stores, spending an average of $472 per person on clothing, home appliances, electronics, toys, and travel experiences. While images of in-store stampedes used to make a splash over the front-page news, today’s preferred method of bargain hunting is online. 14.8 million online transactions were processed on Black Friday 2018, and revenue for the entire Thanksgiving weekend this year is set to break a staggering $29 billion, accounting 20% of the total holiday season’s revenue. Unsurprisingly, it’s the online retail giants that are profiting the most: 56.8% of all Black Friday online transactions in 2018 were made on Amazon.
WHO’S PICKING UP THE TAB?
While the thrill of nabbing a bargain is enticing, this retail frenzy comes at a high cost – one that far outweighs saving a percentage point. Small, independent retailers who can’t compete with the low online prices offered by huge multinational retailers have historically failed to gain momentum on Black Friday weekend. The online shopping hysteria is detrimental to the planet – in terms of production, packaging waste, and delivery, which accounts around 1/4 of the transport industry’s carbon footprint. Air pollution spikes over the weekend: In 2017, it was estimated that between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a diesel truck departed an Amazon fulfilment centre every 93 seconds. Not to mention the toll on warehouse and delivery workers, whose lowly paid, highly precarious jobs come under increased pressures triggered by the weekend’s heightened demand.
TIME TO CHECK OUT?
The dark sides of Black Friday call into question the true cost of that 20% discounted new speaker, jacket or plane ticket. A global pushback is growing in popularity, with ever more brands shutting down over the weekend, or donating the day’s profits to charity. Consumers around the world are taking a stand against this pinnacle of overconsumption by spreading the word on social (#WhiteFriday, #BoycottBlackFriday, or #CancelCyberMonday) and by voting with their wallets – that’s to say, leaving them closed, or buying locally from companies aligned with their values.
At QWSTION, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect on the impact of global overconsumption, and how we can contribute to alleviating its burden.