The Fading Spectacle of Black Friday

The frenzied day after Thanksgiving, as we know it, may be dying. That is an extremely good thing.

Holiday shoppers wait outside a San Francisco Best Buy in preparation for Black Friday shopping in November of 2012. (Stephen Lam/Reuters) keeps a running list of the casualties incurred by the rites and rituals of the day after Thanksgiving. Since 2006, the site says, Black Friday has claimed 97 deaths and injuries—seven of the former, 90 of the latter—as the result of the tramplings, pepper-sprayings, shootings, stabbings, and other tragedies that can occur when the term "doorbuster" is taken too literally.
Ancient Romans filled their Colosseum with throngs thirsting for fights; Americans fill our own arena—our TVs and newspapers and mobile screens—with, among so much else, an annual event that makes bargain-hunting a matter of athletic competition. Black Friday is a media ceremony; it is also an extremely commercialized, and oddly moralized, form of bloodlust. "People are crazy," we say, watching the news reports and shaking our heads and assuring ourselves that we are not part of the "people" in question. "How could they just trample someone?"
But also, on some level: How could they not? Black Friday is, as an event, messy and sweaty and physical. It turns people into a chaotic collection of eyes and elbows and limbs. Discussion of it demands descriptions of "throngs" and "masses," of individual agency ceding itself, wantonly, to the mysterious mechanics of The Crowd.
* * *
Thanksgiving Day holiday shoppers line up with television sets on discount at the Target retail store in Chicago, Illinois, on November 28, 2013. (Jeff Haynes/Reuters)
Black Friday may currently be associated with its ability to put retailers "in the black"; it was originally named, however, for human impulses of a much more basic variety. In the 1950s, the Harvard historian Nancy Koehn says, factory managers started calling the day after Thanksgiving "black Friday" because so many workers would call in sick for it. (The scourge was, as one magazine put it, "a disease second only to the bubonic plague.") In the early '60s, police in Philadelphia began using "Black Friday" to describe the crowds of shoppers and traffic that would flow into the city post-Thanksgiving—making their jobs, and consequently their lives, temporarily more difficult. It wasn't until the 1970s and '80s that retailers began to emphasize the connection between the day after Thanksgiving and the start of the (commercial) holiday season.
Today, Black Friday is a series of spectacles in the guise of a series of sales. It is an event that springs from a state of mind. It is the culmination of all the dreams that Alexander Hamilton and Walt Whitman and Andrew Carnegie had for us, when the nation was itself an aspiration: It is social Darwinism and cultural cohesion and a country soothing itself with the salve of stuff. It is the dream of self-improvement, vacuum-packed and bubble-wrapped. Black Friday is insulated, in a way many other pseudo-holidays are not, from the Culture Wars, because what could be more implicitly agreeable to an American—or to anyone, for that matter—than the simple promise of a good deal?
But Black Friday is also, as pseudo-holidays go, more class-conscious than most. It is thus more divisive than most. If you can't normally afford a flat-screen/iPad/Vitamix/Elsa doll/telephone, Black Friday discounts could offer you the opportunity to purchase those items. If you can normally afford those things, though, you may well decide that the trip to the mall, with its "throngs" and its "masses" and its sweaty inconvenience, isn't worth the trouble.
Which is another way of saying what a headline last week, from the Los Angeles Times, summed up well: "Black Friday highlights the contrast between rich and poor." As a spectacle, it may be celebrated by all, but it is participated in, increasingly, by a few. Black Friday stands, both temporally and culturally, in stark contrast to Thanksgiving, which is not a Hallmark holiday so much as a Williams-Sonoma one, and which involves, at its extremes, people who can afford heritage turkeys/disposable centerpieces/vessels designed solely to pour gravy congratulating themselves on how wonderfully non-commercial the whole thing is. With stomachs full of bird and broccolini and bourbon-ginger-apple pie, they settle in to watch the news stories that come out of Black Friday—the stampedes, the stabbings—and gawk in amusement and amazement. "All that for a flat screen," they say, drinking their wine and clucking their tongues.
Who would want to be the recipient of this kind of ritualized judgment? Who would willingly be Truman Show-ed at the hands of Wal-Mart and the local ABC affiliate? The answer is: very few people.
* * *
People shop at Target on Thanksgiving Day in Burbank, California, in November of 2012. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
This may help to explain why, last year, total sales for Black Friday were down 14 percent from what they had been two years earlier. And it may help to explain, too, why retailers have gone out of their way to take the "day" out of "Black Friday"—and all the smarmy spectacle along with it.
Stores, big box and otherwise, have been extending their Black Friday offerings to Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and beyond. Wal-Mart began offering its general holiday deals on November 1; its official "Black Friday" deals will run from Thanksgiving (except in states like Massachusetts, where blue laws prevent such things on holidays) through Cyber Monday. Target rolled out its holiday deals on November 10; the only bargain it will be offering only on Black Friday itself is a 10-percent-off deal on its gift cards. Staples is offering "Black Friday for Business" discounts on Sunday, and has been, like its competitors, introducing other discounts on other days—a move that, a Staples executive told the Boston Globe, "gives customers the chance to shop when and where they want, not just on one frenetic and frantic day."
That's not to say that Black Friday, in the sense of deals-marking-the-start-of-the-holiday-season, is dying. It's actually to say the opposite: that Black Friday has been so thoroughly absorbed into the American consciousness that it has spread to encompass multiple days—and, for that matter, multiple weeks. "It used to be called Black Friday, then it became Thursday, now it’s a week long," Wal-Mart's chief U.S. merchant, Duncan Mac Naughton, told the Wall Street Journal. "Maybe we should just call it November."
Maybe we should. And maybe we should also, while we're at it, acknowledge that aspiration comes in many forms, only some of them involving iPads and flat-screens. Explaining the calendric encroachment of Black Friday, retail analysts, again and again, cite Americans' desire to "shop on their own schedules" and avoid "set times prescribed by the retailers." They cite the wide availability of the commercial Internet. The dissolution of Black Friday suggests that the ultimate luxury good is not, in the end, a thing, but rather the leisure to make one's own schedule. And to decide for oneself whether—or not—to be part of the spectacles we create for ourselves.