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Why is Black Friday ‘black’?

As the holiday season approaches, shoppers and retailers in the US (and many other countries) will be gearing up for the biggest sales event of the year: Black Friday. In fact, so important is this fourth-quarter shopping bonanza for the bottom line of many companies that some retailers will have been preparing for months, even a year, in advance. But while many people know that Black Friday marks the start of the holiday shopping season, its origins are less well-known. Why is a holiday which is characterized by record profits referred to as ‘black’? It turns out that there’s a dark side to its history as well.

The name of the holiday likely dates back to the 1960s, when Philadelphia police officers started using it to refer to the increase in traffic jams, car accidents and shoplifting incidents that took place on the Friday following Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday of November). This Friday had already become something of an unofficial holiday, with many workers phoning in sick so they could have a four-day weekend. At the same time, large crowds of suburban tourists would travel to the city on this Friday to attend the annual Army-Navy football game taking place on Saturday. And as there had been an unwritten rule that retailers should not run sales promotions until after Thanksgiving, it was also the first day that shoppers could hunt for holiday bargains. So when hordes of shoppers descended on the city, it created a nightmare scenario for the police – and eventually a new holiday.

Another possible explanation for the holiday’s name is related to the business practice of recording profits in black ink and losses in red ink. As many companies operate ‘in the red’ (or at a loss) up until the Friday following Thanksgiving, the boost in sales experienced on this day puts them back ‘in the black’ (at a profit). Hence the name Black Friday. It’s an uplifting story. But when you consider the incidents of stampedes and violence that still accompany many Black Friday shopping sprees, the first story may be more credible.

Regardless of its origins, Black Friday continues to rake in profits, earning a record total of $14 billion in 2020, an otherwise difficult year for retail. And in addition to being exported around the world, it has even spawned a number of spin-off holidays: Small Business Saturday, when shoppers are encouraged to support local businesses; Cyber Monday, the online equivalent of Black Friday; and Giving Tuesday, when consumers have a chance to make amends for their holiday splurges by donating to charity. Then there’s Singles’ Day, the main shopping holiday in China, which starts even earlier than Black Friday and has already surpassed it in global sales. For now at least, the future of holiday shopping, however shady its past, appears bright.

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gear up (for something): to get ready for something, especially a big event

shopping bonanza: from a Spanish word meaning “good weather”, a bonanza is any event that brings great profit or success to many people

bottom line: on financial reports, the bottom line of the report typically showed the company’s net income; if something affects the bottom line of a company, it has an impact on the company’s total profit or loss

marks the start (of something): an event that marks the start / beginning of something causes it to start, or happens at the same time as it

record profits: profits that are higher than ever before (record is an adjective here, so the stress is on the first syllable)

dates back to: if a holiday dates back to the 1960s, it has existed since then

shoplifting incidents: shoplifting is taking things from a store without paying for them; and an incident just refers to something that happened, usually something bad

phone in sick: when you phone in sick, you tell your employer you cannot come to work

run sales promotions: a sales promotion is any marketing strategy that helps sell a product by offering discounts or other incentives to buy it; run means ‘implement’ in this collocation

hunt for bargains: a bargain (/ˈbɑː.ɡɪn/) is something you buy cheaply or for less than its usual price; people who hunt for bargains (also known as bargain hunters) are people who actively search for these deals

hordes of shoppers: a horde of shoppers is a large number of shoppers; when used with words like shoppers or tourists, the word has a slightly negative connotation, referring to their noisy or uncontrolled behavior; and we often say that hordes of shoppers descended on a city or any other place to mean that they arrived there

be in the red / black: if a company is in the red or is operating in the red, it is spending or owes more money than it is earning; if a company is in the black, it is making a profit

boost in sales: a boost in sales is an increase in sales

shopping spree: if you buy a lot of items in a short amount of time, you go on a shopping spree; as spree is also used in the phrases killing spree and shooting spree, a shopping spree can sometimes have a slightly negative connotation, implying that the spending is out of control 

rake in profits: a rake is a garden tool used to gather leaves into a pile (гра́бли); so if you rake something in, especially profits / cash / money, you collect a large quantity of it

spawn a spin-off: a spin-off is something that resembles an earlier work, product, or (in this case) holiday; spawn is a synonym of ‘generate’ or ‘create’ that is often used with spin-off

make amends (for something): to make amends for something is to do something good to show that you are sorry for doing something wrong

holiday splurges: a splurge is when you spend a lot of money on something you may want, but do not really need

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