The Friday after Thanksgiving to the Monday afterwards is a bonanza of shopping in the United States, where capitalism runs wild with reckless abandon. It’s almost a symbol of a society whose identity is as intertwined with with rampant consumerism as it is with freedom and democracy. We are free to spend all our gold pieces.
And once upon a time, we went back to work on Monday and looked for a raise or bonus to help replenish the coffers. But since fast internet connections started to show up in offices in the late 90s the commodification of holiday shopping, the very digitization of materialism.
But how did it come to be? The term Black Friday goes back to a financial crisis in 1869 after Jay Gould and Jim Fisk tried to corner the market on Gold. That backfired and led to a Wall Street crash in September of that year. As the decades rolled by, Americans in the suburbs of urban centers had more and more disposable income and flocked to city centers the day after Thanksgiving. Finally, by 1961, the term showed up in Philadelphia where turmoil over the holiday shopping extravaganza inside.
And so as economic downturns throughout the 60s and 70s gave way to the 1980s, the term spread slowly across the country until marketers, decided to use it to their advantage and run sales just on that day. Especially the big chains that were by now in cities where the term was common.
And many retailers spent the rest of the year in the red and made back all of their money over the holidays - thus they got in the black. The term went from a negative to a positive.
Stores opened earlier and earlier on Friday. Some even unlocking the doors at midnight after shoppers got a nice nap in following stuffing their faces with turkey the earlier in the day.
As the Internet exploded in the 90s and buying products online picked up steam, marketers of online e-commerce platforms wanted in on the action. See, they considered brick and mortar to be mortal competition. Most of them should have been looking over their shoulder at Amazon rising, but that’s another episode.
And so Cyber Monday was born in 2005 when the National Retail Federation launched the term to the world in a press release. And who wanted to be standing in line outside a retail store at midnight on Friday? Especially when the first Wii was released by Nintendo that year and was sold out everywhere early Friday morning. But come Cyber Monday it was all over the internet. Not only that, but one of Amazon’s top products that year was the iPod. And the DS Lite. And World of Warcraft. Oh and that was the same year Tickle Me Elmo was sold out everywhere. But available on the Internets. The online world closed the holiday out at just shy of half a billion dollars in sales. But they were just getting started.
And I’ve always thought it was kitschy. And yet I joined in with the rest of them when I started getting all those emails. Because opt-in campaigns were exploding as e-tailers honed those skills at appealing to not wanting to be the worst parent in the world. And Cyber Monday grew year over year. Even as the Great Recession came and has since grown first to a billion dollar shopping day in 2010 and as brick and mortar companies jumped in on the action, $4 billion by 2017, $6 billion in 2018, and nearly $8 billion in 2019.
As Covid-19 spread and people stayed home during the 2020 holiday shopping season, revenues from Cyber Monday grew 15% over the previous year, hitting $10.8 billion. But it came at the cost of brick and mortar sales, which fell nearly 24% over the same time a year prior. I guess it kinda’ did, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Seeing the success of the Cyber Monday marketers, American Express launched Small Business Saturday in 2010, hoping to lure shoppers into small businesses that accepted their cards. And who doesn’t love small businesses? Politicians flocked into malls in support, including President Obama in 2011. And by 2012, spending was over $5 billion on Small Business Saturday, and grew to just shy of $20 billion in 2020. To put that into perspective, Georgia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Jamaica, Niger, Armenia, Haiti, Mongolia, and dozens of other countries have smaller GDPs than just one shopping day in the US.
Brick and mortar stores are increasingly part of online shopping. Buy online, pick up curb-side. But that trend goes back to the early 2000s when Walmart was a bigger player on Cyber Monday than Amazon. That changed in 2008 and Walmart fought back with Cyber Week, stretching the field in 2009. Target said “us too” in 2010. And everyone in between hopped in. The sales start at least a week early and spread from online to retail in person with hundreds of emails flooding my inbox at this point. This year, Americans are expected to spend over $36 billion during the weekend from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. And the split between all the sales is pretty much indistinguishable. Who knows or to some degrees cares what bucket each gets placed in at this point.
Something else was happening in the decades as Black Friday spread to consume the other days around the Thanksgiving holiday: intensifying globalization. Products flooding into the US from all over the world. Some cheap, some better than what is made locally. Some awesome. Some completely unnecessary. It’s a land of plenty. And yet, does it make us happy? My kid enjoyed playing with an empty toilet paper roll just as much as a Furby. And loved the original Xbox just as much as the Switch. I personally need less and to be honest want less as I get older. And yet I still find myself getting roped into spending too much on people at the holidays.
Maybe we should create “experience Sunday” where instead of buying material goods, we facilitate free experiences for our loved ones. Because I’m pretty sure they’d rather have that than another ugly pair of holiday socks. Actually, that reminds me: I have some of those in my cart on Amazon so I should wrap this up as they can deliver it tonight if I hurry up.
So this Thanksgiving I’m thankful that I and my family are healthy and happy. I’m thankful to be able to do things I love. I’m thankful for my friends. And I’m thankful to all of you for staying with us as we turn another page into the 2022 year. I hope you have a lovely holiday season and have plenty to be thankful for as well. Because you deserve it.