A Brief History of Black Friday

Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.

How did Black Friday become such a big shopping day?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

So retailers were always hoping for an early Thanksgiving?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

Brilliant! How did that work out?

Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.

By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

Why is it called Black Friday?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

So where did the whole "get in the black" story originate?

Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

Do retailers really need Black Friday to turn an annual profit?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

Is Black Friday really the biggest shopping day of the year?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

Do people really get injured on Black Friday?

Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.

In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

How can this kind of thing be avoided?

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.

Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.

The Best Place to Park at the Mall, According to Science

Diy13/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Diy13/iStock via Getty Images Plus

It’s Black Friday, and you are entering the battlefield: a mall parking lot. You’re determined to nail that doorbuster deal, and quantities are limited. The field is already full of other combatants. You must find the perfect parking spot.

Do you grab the first one you see, or drive as close to the mall as you can and hover? Or, do you choose a tactic that lies somewhere between?

Parking at the mall has long frustrated drivers and taxed the minds of traffic engineers—but after working on the problem for three years, physicists Sidney Redner of the Santa Fe Institute and Paul Krapivsky of Boston University have gotten closer to a winning strategy. “There are lots of studies of parking lots, but it’s just that they’re so complicated, you don’t get any insight into what’s actually happening,” Redner tells Mental Floss.

Redner and Krapivsky, whose work employs statistical physics to make sense of large systems, simplified the messy dynamics of a parking lot by modeling it with a one-dimensional grid of cells, each representing a parking space. They tested three simple, yet realistic, parking strategies using basic probability theory. Their model tested the following strategies to see which one resulted in least time spent walking and driving in the parking lot:

Meek Strategy: Meek drivers park in the first open space they see, however distant it is from the mall. As a result, they often spend the most time walking to and from the mall.

Prudent Strategy: Prudent drivers look for the first open spot but then keep driving toward the mall. They continue to drive until they see a parked car and then park in the best open spot between that first open spot and that first parked car. There may be a block of open spaces between the first open space and the first parked car. From that block of open spaces, they choose the one closest to the mall.

Optimistic Strategy: Optimistic drivers drive as close to the mall as possible and look for a parking space close to the entrance. If they see one, they grab it. If there are none, they backtrack and choose the first open space they see. Optimistic drivers probably spend the most time driving and the least time walking. In the worst-case scenario, they end up parking back where a meek driver would have parked.

Naturally cautious drivers are more likely to default to the meek mode, while aggressive drivers often use the optimistic strategy, well, aggressively. And most drivers have tried something like the prudent method.

So, which is your best bet in a crowded mall parking lot this holiday season?

In the experiments, the prudent strategy fared best, followed closely by the optimistic strategy. The meek strategy finished a distant third (“It’s hard to comprehend just how bad it is,” says Krapivsky, a self-described meek driver).

And even better: The more crowded the lot, the better the prudent strategy works, he adds.

One clear takeaway from the study is that meek drivers may want to ramp up their parking skills before going to the mall. “You don't want to park on the very outskirts of the lot, like a mile away from the stores. You want to go to the first place there’s an open spot and park somewhere in that first open area,” Redner says. They published their findings in the Journal of Statistical Mechanics [PDF].

The researchers say this is the best of the strategies they tested, but it has its limitations. It does not take into consideration competition among a sea of drivers all looking for parking spaces at the same time, and it doesn’t include (perhaps optimistically) the psychological aspects of operating a vehicle. “We are not rational when we are driving,” Krapivsky tells Mental Floss.

The researchers’ one-dimensional grid model also assumed that there would be one car at a time entering the lot through one entrance, unlike messier lots in the real world, where many cars enter from a multitude of entrances.

The optimal parking strategy, one that would best all others every time, has yet to be found. In their research, though, Redner and Krapivsky are homing in on one that integrates the more complicated aspects of parking.

For now, science says prudence is a virtue in the parking lot. And while the meek might inherit the Earth, they certainly won’t find the best parking space at the mall.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images
Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25 and ends on January 5. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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