Long lines curving through the store, massive crowds pushing up against the walls and piles of clothes strewn about the tables and floor. That’s what millions of people will be leaving their Thanksgiving celebrations for when malls open their doors at 6 p.m. For years, Black Friday has been extending itself well beyond one day of bargain prices and doorbuster deals.
Consumers are all too happy to whip their credit cards out for lower prices on Thanksgiving night, and you can bet there will be dozens of people waiting in lines for the doors to open so they can get their hands on the best discounted products.
But from the perspective of the employees, Black Friday means long hours, large messes and cutting short or forgoing Thanksgiving altogether. It means preparing larger inventories, hiring more staff and spending days, or even weeks, cleaning up the aftermath. Black Friday has become far more than just the largest shopping day of the year.
An innocent beginning
There are differing tales of how Black Friday came to be and how it earned its name, but the most common one didn’t even have anything to do with shopping.
The term “Black Friday” was coined by Philadelphia police officers in the 1960s. Law enforcement disliked the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving because of the major crowds that caused congested streets filled with motorists and pedestrians during the weekend after Thanksgiving. So they coined the term “Black Friday” in the hopes of giving visitors a negative impression of the day so they would avoid it.
It didn’t work.
One story puts the cause of those traffic jams squarely on the annual Army-Navy football game that was regularly played in Philadelphia that weekend, while others simply point the blame at an increased shopping population over the first holiday weekend. Other fingers point toward the retail industry. In retail, being “in the black” means being profitable, which generally happens during the holiday season.
If Black Friday’s origin was indeed meant to be something negative, that ploy obviously backfired. Black Friday has grown to a multibillion-dollar shopping day that is almost perceived as a holiday in itself.
Black Friday has morphed into a behemoth of a day, which now begins on Thanksgiving and continues with Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. Not only that, companies such as Amazon have started launching massive mid-year sales comparable to Black Friday to spark even more spending.
Even so, the holiday season (November to December) still marks the busiest time of the year for retail. Statistic Brain Research Institute reported the total consumer retail spending from Nov. 1 – Dec. 16 to be $52 billion.
A numbers-driven game
There’s a reason retailers put their “We’re hiring” signs out in the fall. It takes a large staff to serve the hundreds of thousands of consumers who will descend on malls and stores on the weekend following Thanksgiving.
“Currently on staff I’ve got 36 — looking for probably 20 more — for Black Friday,” said Adam Limkemann, a six-year retail veteran and an assistant manager of the Express store in Jordan Creek Town Center.
According to Statistic Brain, consumers plan to spend more than $800 on gifts this year. This sort of spending — and overspending — has become so commonplace that banks now advertise “holiday loans” to ensure borrowers “are covered for all their gift-giving needs.”
Online spending on Black Friday has increased steadily each year since 2010, but in-store spending had its first drop in five years in 2014, from $57.4 billion in 2013 to $50.9 billion.
Thanksgiving Day sales, however, have increased every year in the same period. Last year was the biggest jump, surpassing $1 billion, up from $766 million in 2013.
Earning the name “Gray Thursday,” Thanksgiving has become another one of the top shopping days for retailers, as more and more stores begin to open earlier each year.
This encroachment of Thanksgiving has been criticized by many, but numbers show that critique doesn’t stop them from firing up the computer to cash in on that buy-two-get-one-free sale.
Limkemann says those early shopping hours on Thanksgiving are some of the busiest.
“That 6 p.m. to 10 or 11 is pretty busy, because it’s people coming in after dinner,” he explained. “Then usually the overnight is when it starts to slow down, and then right in the morning, like 6 a.m.-ish, it gets busy again.”
The numbers are staggering. But with billions of dollars at stake, what business is going to turn away a customer with an open wallet?
But retail is more than consumers. There’s another side — the employees. These are the people who are ringing up $300 worth of half-price sweaters and must-have toys, the sales associates who are trying their best to keep more products on the tables than customers can push to the floor.
And while shoppers contemplate pushing Thanksgiving dinner up a little earlier to be there when the mall opens at 6 p.m., those same employees have already been there for two hours.
After spending his last six Black Fridays on the other side of the counter, Limkemann has a split opinion on opening early.
“My personal life says, ‘I really wish we would do 6 a.m.’ (on Black Friday),” he said. “I think it would be so awesome, because my family is three hours away, so I could go home, and I could have a Thanksgiving. And I’m fine with driving in the middle of the night.
“But my professional life says, ‘6 p.m.! 6 p.m.! Let’s do this!’ I’m ready to make some money. I mean, it’s a great time to grab volume, (so) I’m really on the fence.”
While Limkemann would love to join his family for Thanksgiving, he realizes that’s not an option for those who work in retail. This year, he is expecting to be scheduled to work 12 hours, but says he will likely end up working 16 or 18 of the 28 consecutive hours the store will be open.
The unexpected mania
The Black Friday madness we know today began fairly recently, with “Gray Thursday” starting within the last few years. Michael Jay, a Des Moines resident who began in retail in 1982, was working at a children’s store in Jordan Creek Town Center the first year it opened at midnight.
The mall had only been open for about two or three years at the time, and Jay said no one really knew what to expect when they decided to open early for Black Friday.
“We weren’t scheduled heavily because we didn’t really think it was going to be that big of a deal — none of us did,” said Jay. “Then it was absolutely pure insanity.”
Jay said he wasn’t scheduled to come in to the store until 6 a.m. on Black Friday, but he was called in at 4 a.m.
The assistant manager at the time “called the store manager probably about 2 (a.m.) just in tears because the store was just packed with people,” Jay explained. “They were lined up out the door to try to get in, and then there was a line back to the store to check out. By the time I got in there, clothing was just in piles on tables, clothing was lying on the floor. There was literally no way to really get to the back room because the store was just packed with people. And we had an off-site storage unit upstairs in the mall, and I remember just bringing stuff down for our doorbuster sale, and we didn’t even bother to make it look presentable. We just opened up the boxes and dumped stuff on tables.
“It was just amazing. I think we planned to do $50,000 for the day, and I think by 4 (a.m.) we had already gotten in like $25,000.”
The shopping frenzy is similar at Jordan Creek’s Express store, which Limkemann says is one of the chain’s top 100 stores in the country.
Limkemann started working for Express in Cedar Falls and was moved to Valley West before starting his current position at Jordan Creek, which he says is a completely different experience.
“Jordan Creek is a very different beast as far as Black Friday,” he said. “It’s a destination mall, so people who’ve driven here are ready to shop. It’s funny to watch the strategies, where the mom will get in line, and the daughter will run around the store and grab things and hand them off to the mom; she’s just (got) armfuls of things. It gets pretty aggressive.”
Limkemann says his first Black Friday is his most memorable one, as he remembers one customer who needed medical attention.
“I was at my registers, and I hear this commotion over in my denim area,” said Limkemann. “And I look over and people have formed a circle around what’s happening. And this poor woman had passed out — I don’t know whether it was from exhaustion or excitement, but she was on the ground, and we had to stop what we were doing and call the paramedics.”
The woman was fine in the end, but it was one of the few instances where shoppers experienced dead silence on the busiest shopping days of the year.
Shoppers: naughty or nice?
Between raging crowds, piles of products and general craziness that ensues at malls and stores on Black Friday, why do people keep doing it? Sales, promotions and coupons are available throughout the whole year and sometimes even equate to better deals than those offered on Black Friday. Why deal with the midnight madness and crowds to save a couple bucks?
Many shoppers will tell you: It’s all about the experience.
“When I shopped Black Friday before I worked in retail, it was more like the camaraderie, the fun — like hanging out with people in line and talking,” said Limkemann. “So you have people who are there, and they totally understand what it’s all about. They’re excited about the deal, they’re down to wait. You have those really great people.”
And then there are the not-so-great people.
“My favorite thing on Black Friday is reminding people where they are,” said Limkemann, smiling at the thought of some of the crazed customers he’s seen. “I’m very big on reality checks. When they’re really upset they have to wait in line, I tell them, ‘You are in the largest mall in Iowa and one of the best retailers in the mall, and it’s 7 a.m. — can we talk about this?”
While that works to remind some people where they are, others aren’t so easily calmed.
“Sometimes they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, OK.’ And other times they really don’t get it. They just don’t want to wait in line,” Limkemann continued. “I just find that amusing.”
Getting yelled at is such a normal occurrence for retail workers that they hardly scoff at the idea. For Jay, who’s worked in retail for more than 30 years, dealing with customers in that environment has done much to change his perceptions of people.
“The years in retail have just changed how I feel about humanity and nature,” he said. “I just, you know, I think people are unreasonable. To be honest, I would say 80 percent of them (customers) have forgotten what the season is all about. Twenty percent of the people are pleasant, will wish you a merry Christmas and are understanding if they have to wait in line.
“But the majority of the people today, I think, are just — they’re too into the material aspect of the holiday season. And then you have the people who get upset because you’re out of something that they wanted. They just expect you to be able to produce this size of clothing or this size in a shoe or whatever for them.”
In some places, the shopping holiday has become a battle for the best bargains, with fights breaking out over TVs and crowds trampling other shoppers. A simple Google search for “Black Friday fights” brings up thousands of results with videos to document the madness.
There are also customers who use the crowds and craziness to their advantage.
“People like to hide things, try to squirrel things away in different corners of the store and come back,” said Limkemann, adding that he believes stealing might actually be less of an issue on Black Friday.
“(Stealing is) something you always deal with in retail, but I feel like on Black Friday it’s probably less, just because the promo is so awesome, and we have a lot of coverage,” he said.
But not everyone is ready and willing to cut their holiday short for a bargain. Whether for religious views, anti-consumerism ideals or just a hatred of shopping and crowds, many people will be staying at home and forgoing the sales altogether.
And this year, a few stores will join them in opting out.
REI, a national outdoor retailer that opened its first Iowa location earlier this month in West Des Moines, made headlines when the company announced it would be giving its employees a paid holiday on Black Friday and closing all of its stores.
“For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors. We believe that being outside makes our lives better. And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth,” read the statement from Jerry Stritzke, chief executive and president of REI.
It is an almost-unprecedented move — one that’s causing a conversation to start among both retailers and consumers. Some say REI will take a major financial loss, while others applaud the company for taking its employees’ personal lives into consideration.
“They were the first to do it, so they absolutely got way more than it will ever cost them to be closed,” said Bob Phibbs, a New York-based author and consultant known as “The Retail Doctor.”
To further the mission, REI launched a campaign asking people to “opt outside” and use the hashtag #optoutside to share their Black Friday activities other than shopping. More than 866,400 people had taken the pledge to opt outside on REI’s website as of Nov. 12.
REI is currently the only retailer confirmed to stay closed on Black Friday, but several others have taken the cue and will remain closed on Thanksgiving, including Staples, Costco, Nordstrom, Home Goods, DSW, Barnes and Noble, Home Depot, Von Maur, H&M and Sam’s Club.
Opting out of the shopping frenzy has an earlier history, though. Buy Nothing Day, which is held on Black Friday in America but the Saturday following it in other countries, is a day created to protest consumerism.
The first one was organized by artist Ted Dave in Vancouver, Canada, in September 1992. It began as a day to examine the issue of over-consumption in society, and in 1997 it was moved to fall on Black Friday.
Critics claim, however, that it only causes people to buy items on other days.
So while some will point fingers at the retailers for opening their doors to consumerism, many retail workers say it’s not all bad.
“I’m a very excitable human,” Limkemann said with a smile. “I’m the type of person that I get really excited about things, and I just think that’s part of my job as well — to get others excited about it.
“And for every rude person, there are two people who are super stoked about Black Friday and who are really down to wait in line. There are people who are there for the experience, which is great.” CV
Black Friday Shopping Hours
Black Friday Numbers
Annual number of consumers shopping in stores or online on Black Friday: 133,700,000
Amount shoppers plan to spend on gifts this year: $804.42
Total online spending on Black Friday: $1,505,000,000
Total online spending on Cyber Monday: $1,028,000,000
Total Thanksgiving Day spending in 2014: $1,009,000,000
90 percent of consumers plan to shop online
16 percent of consumers are willing to pay full price