Our friend Edward Boches, a professor of advertising at Boston University, recently posed a question on Facebook: “Are we, in advertising, responsible for the real life version of Hunger Games?” He was alluding of course to the images of Black Friday shoppers battling for electronics, parents stealing boxes from the hands of other parents’ children, stampedes by doors, that type of thing. Boches linked to a 2014 column by Luke O’Neil in The Washington Post, who suggested Black Friday “brawl videos” are how rich people shame the poor: that is, wealthy people stay home, aghast at the consumerism we see among the less-fortunate, who race for sales stoked by the elite.
Well, no, this is not the case. Holiday retail sales in fact appeal to all demographics, with the price framing thought up by Richard Thaler in 1980 becoming a core motivator of human behavior. Black Friday shoppers closely mirror national averages for household income. What is different is the crowds on Thanksgiving Day and the Friday thereafter skew young.
But before we dig into Black Friday profiles, let’s see where this strange shopping holiday came from.
Army vs. Navy
The common legend is the day after Thanksgiving was the date in the calendar year when retailers went from being in the “red” – with expenses greater than profits – to making it into the “black” financially; hence “Black Friday.” But the History Channel recently reported the actual holiday name stems from a day of raucous shopping and shoplifting in Philadelphia in the 1960s, when an annual Saturday Army-Navy football game brought throngs of consumers into the city the day after Thanksgiving. Police staffed up to manage all the retail turmoil. This year, the National Retail Federation reported 135 million Americans planned to shop over Thanksgiving weekend. Many retailers began opening their doors to sales on Thanksgiving as well. Walmart and Target opened on Thursday this year at 6 p.m.; JCPenney at 3 p.m.; and the Family Dollar Store at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. The encroachment of retail sales on turkey day seems unstoppable.
Who shops on Black Friday?
The crowds that come on Thanksgiving or the Friday after closely match national demographics for household income, countering O’Neil’s opinion that Black Friday shopping is a sport for the poor – but they do skew younger, being 86% more likely to be under age 30 than average shoppers, and slightly more female, according to a national study by CivicScience. (Gallup found similar results in a 2012 poll, with 34% of adults age 18-29 being the predominant Black Friday shoppers.) These consumers are technologically savvy, with a majority using smart phones to check prices and coupons. And they’re most interested in buying electronics or clothes — items where seeing, touching and feeling seem intrinsic to the purchase decision.
But beyond the youthful rush at the mall, consumers may be pushing back on Thanksgiving-week sales. CivicScience found that 90% of U.S. consumers said they were not at all likely to shop on Thanksgiving Day, and 81% were unlikely to shop on Black Friday.
And all the rush to open physical doors earlier does not appear to be jacking brick-and-mortar sales. The National Retail Federation reported today that 103 million U.S. consumers shopped online over Thanksgiving weekend, beating the 102 million who showed up at malls. ComScore reports that digital sales last Thursday and Friday were up 20% over the prior year, compared to brick-and-mortar sales being slightly down.
The upshot is ironic: Retailers continue to push further into the holiday calendar, opening earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving Day, while the holiday shoppers are moving more to online outlets. Black Friday is not an event the preys on poorer people, but rather on the psychology of all consumers, enticing with perceived deals as the dark of winter approaches. The most interesting trend is older consumers, where wealth is concentrated, appear most likely to stay home, surfing for discounts by the warm light of their computers. Why hello, there, Cyber Monday.