Black Friday is creating Gray Thursday and killing Thanksgiving

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For the record, I didn’t invent the term Gray Thursday. I wish I had – and I even thought I did. But as a matter of journalistic integrity, I did some research on the term to see if anyone else has hatched it first. And someone has. I’m not at all certain of the origin of the term, but it did appear in this news video from PBS in November of 2012. Loosely speaking, Gray Thursday – yes, Thanksgiving Day – is the day before Black Friday, and it’s a development that’s killing Thanksgiving as we’ve always known it.

The real meaning of “Black Friday”

I did some more research on this as well, cheating by using Wikipedia. The real meaning of Black Friday isn’t entirely clear. Though it’s thought to be the traditional day in which retailers finally begin to turn a profit – going from being “in the red” (the old accounting way to disclose net losses), to being “in the black”, which is the color net profits are reported in.

Black Friday is creating Gray Thursday and killing Thanksgiving
Black Friday is creating Gray Thursday and killing Thanksgiving

The term actually originated in Philadelphia as far back as 1961, where it was used to describe “heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic”.

Whatever the original intent of the term was, the Friday after Thanksgiving has become the traditional start of the Christmas buying season frenzy. It has only become more intense each year, as the big box retailers duke it out to see who can draw more of the consumer’s dollars by offering lower prices, bigger sales, and even more extended hours.

Smaller retailers and independent shops have mostly just been dragged along for the ride. Many consumers, on the other hand, have become more than willing participants.

Why it’s spilling into Thanksgiving – Gray Thursday

The easiest explanation is the “more is better” mentality. If Black Friday is a good thing for retailers, then pushing it forward into Thanksgiving itself is even better. And since Thanksgiving is already a holiday, and most people are home from work – or at least they used to be before Black Friday formally invaded and subdued Thanksgiving Day – what better time to pack the stores?

There was a more specific explanation for this phenomenon in an article last week. I apologize but I don’t remember the article, and didn’t save the link, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

Since big box retailers dominate Black Friday, online retailers – primarily Amazon.com – got the jump by launching their sales on Thanksgiving day. Not to be outdone, the big box retailers are now pushing their Black Friday sales into Thanksgiving itself.

If history is any guide, the opening of retail stores on Thanksgiving Day is likely to advance to well before the 10 PM or 8 PM start on the holiday. Eventually, it’s not hard to project that Black Friday sales will begin on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, and run straight through the holiday as if it never existed.

Why Black Friday – Gray Thursday is neither beneficial – nor benign

Call me cynical, call me a buzz killer – call me anything you like – I don’t think this is a positive development, no matter how much money retailers make or how much money consumers may save.

The purpose of holidays, and especially one as significant as Thanksgiving, has always been to give people rest from their labors, and a chance to spend special time with loved ones. Many of the holidays, including and especially Thanksgiving, also have a strong religious purpose – as day set aside for worship and appreciation for what has been given to us by our Creator.

For many families, Thanksgiving and Christmas may be the only days out of the year when they spend an appreciable amount of time together or see extended family. But let’s admit it – traditions in America are dying fast. Money is all that matters, right? And everything else needs to be torn down if it gets in the way.

Thus Thanksgiving joins Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Veterans Day, and other holidays, as just another mega shopping day.

Why should we be worried about this? En route to becoming a true 24/7 economy, the basic fabric of both family and community is being torn apart. People are called upon to work on Saturdays, Sundays, and now holidays. Time with family is being compromised. Most of the people who are being forced to work on these days are at the lower end of the pay scale – they have to work in order to make more money, or out of fear of losing their jobs if they don’t.

On that last point, at a major chain grocery store in my neighborhood – that will be open from 6 AM Thanksgiving morning until 1 AM Friday morning – all employees are being required to work for a minimum of four hours. On Thanksgiving. By shopping on the holiday we’re feeding into that dynamic!

Where once the holidays were a chance to break bread with family and friends, and to build relationships and memories, they’re quickly morphing into just another day in our non-stop 24/7 world.

Like we don’t already have enough changes pulling society apart

Is this really just about Thanksgiving and Black Friday? If it were, there wouldn’t be as much reason for concern. But this is a bigger picture problem, and one that’s becoming systemic in our society.

We are a society that is highly transient, driven obsessively by the desire to earn and consume, and struggling with divorce, broken families, latchkey kids, drug and alcohol abuse, and the highest rate of incarceration in the free world.

I’m of the opinion that most of this can be traced to a departure from the basic pillars of civilization – faith, family and community. Each of those three institutions has been systematically devalued in our culture. Traditions are a big part of what supports those societal institutions. That includes spending time with family, attending worship services, participating in community involvement, saving money (rather than spending it), making productive use of our time, and observing holidays. Black Friday and Gray Thursday are killing one of the biggest holidays of the year – Thanksgiving.

This development, in my opinion, is a microcosm of all the other problems that we have. There isn’t a tradition that exists in our culture that we will uphold if money hangs in the balance. Take away traditions, and you get a sterile culture with no human connection.

Is saving a few bucks on Christmas shopping worth the bigger costs? Or should we keep pretending that there is no real connection?

Vote with your feet and stay home

So here’s my suggestion, not only for Thanksgiving but also for Black Friday. Stay home and enjoy your family and your dinner. You may want to add some worship in there too. Just look around – our society is in desperate need of divine intervention. Much as we like to think that higher education, government intervention and our “miraculous” technology can fix all of our problems, it’s obvious that something’s fundamentally wrong. Black Friday and Gray Thursday do nothing more than add to our already long list of cultural problems.

Forget about the sales – forget about buying bargains for Christmas – stay home and reflect on the bigger picture, and what you can do in your little corner of the world to stop the collective bleeding.

Stop participating in the madness. Let the big-box retailers know that they’re not going to make your holiday irrelevant, force you or your family members to work on a day that should be spent at home with family, and that there are in fact some things in life that are more important than money.

What are your plans for Thanksgiving and Black Friday? Do you plan to stay at home and observe the holiday – or follow the herd to the mall to continue feeding the beast?

( Photo by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com )

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10 Responses to Black Friday is creating Gray Thursday and killing Thanksgiving

  1. I love this post. I hate how things are bleeding together. We need more time for ourselves and one another and we aren’t fighting hard enough for it.

  2. Thanks Michelle! One of the most dangerous mindsets is “go along to get along” and that’s what we do most of the time. We go with the flow, then wonder why everything is falling apart after the fact. Black Friday is disrupting, especially now that it’s spilling back into Thanksgiving. We shouldn’t be so ready to sacrifice family and quiet time for bargains.

  3. Kevin,

    Allow me to commend you for this article. As a several year veteran of the retail store management (field? Industry gives it a bit more credit than it deserves…) I concur. Black Friday has always been a somewhat accepted part of the retail contract. Its always a big day where everyone can plan on working and plan on being busy busy busy. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Working in a busy store can be fun if the management has its act together and is both appropriately staffed and has made a plan to survive the day as a team.

    I regard the continuing push into Thanksgiving as sign that the marketing divisions of these companies are both morally and mentally bankrupt. If you have a good store with a mix of merchandise and sale prices which are fundamentally desirable to your customers, then YOU WILL HAVE A GREAT DAY ON BLACK FRIDAY! But the problem is, we have run out of innovative, cool and USEFUL items to sell. Look at Walmart, Kmart, Target. Its all the same crap in different combinations. Problem is, you can only sell a certain amount of GPS units, MP3 players, Tvs, Computers, tablets, etc. I remember in the 1990s when Televisions where the big item. Now they are a dime a dozen. We have hit the point where there is so much STUFF out there for sale that the only way to make more money is to sell it for less and try to open earlier than everyone else. But that strategy starts to collapse when everyone else follows the leader and does it too. And with the same product to boot. There IS a difference between being a LEADER and being the Lemming that starts the charge.

    I am Thankful this year that the company I am with has elected to remain closed on Thanksgiving. I hear a lot of Retailers saying a lot of lofty, high minded things in their mission statements, and make the decision to be open. Guess what…the Vps, senior executives or whichever batch of overpaid hacks made the decision will certainly NOT be the ones in the trenches on thanksgiving living with that decision.

    That said, I will be out Black Friday, not running with the herd but manning the corral. And strangely enough, I will likely take a ride by Wal-Mart sometime in the evening on Thanksgiving. Not to shop but to remind myself to be thankful for working at a retail company that cares enough about its people to stay closed on Thanksgiving.

  4. Hi Jared – I really relate to your description stuggle on retail as “field -industry”. I had the same dilemma with the mortgage “industry” way back when. It seemed too schizophrenic to properly be termed an industry.

    I’m glad to hear the opinions of an insider. I don’t have a problem with a business or an industry making money, and especially if they are innovative in their approach. But as you say, they all play follow the leader. I do have a problem with businesses that trample people, families and traditions by trying to swallow them up whole. Black Friday has become like a hydra smothering Thanksgiving.

    My son worked at Toys R Us last year, and worked from 7pm Thanksgivin to 4am Black Friday. He had to leave our Thanksgiving celebration early, but he did enjoy the night. TRS had plenty of staff on duty, rotated the jobs, and supplied plenty of food. But then TRS knows how to do it right. Not all stores do. And the big shots who make the decisions to extend hours are comfortably at home with their families enjoying the holiday.

    I’m not putting all the blame on the retailers either. The lemmings who flock out to the stores on Thanksgiving have their own issues. They’ll apparenlty go to any lengths to save a few dollars. That’s a kind of a sickness in my mind.

    We did a similar Black Friday pilgrimage a couple of years ago, heading to the shopping centers at 11:30 Thanksgiving night. It was an education! Hundreds of people lined up in front of Target, Toys R Us and other stores, complete with kids, blankets, food coolers, sleeping bags and even a cot or two. How far are people willing to go to save money???

  5. It will start with a Thanksgiving church service on Wednesday night, then sleeping in til about 7 am on Thursday. Then, on Thanksgiving day, I will do my best to stay home all day long. I am cooking a big fat bird, and eating until I need rolaids, all while playing board games and laughing with family. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year, and fully agree with you Kevin, Black Friday only puts a damper on Gray Thursday, so I for one, am not letting that happen in my family!

  6. Hi Jim – That looks a lot like our holiday celebration. We’ll get up early, start cooking (much of it prepared the day before), have a nice hot breakfast, watch the parade, some movies and a game or two, then have dinner with family and friends. My son does have to head out to his retail job at 10pm, which is better than last year when he had to be at work at 7pm. Still, I wish he didn’t have to go. As for me, I’ll gladly let the shopaholics and other maniacs have all the deals.

  7. We have the choice to vote with our dollars. This us the first year you’re really seeing a strong push into Thanksgiving itself. Hopefully consumers don’t encourage it.

    I’ve also been seeing more stores start their sales earlier in the week. I wonder if we’ll see more of a Black Friday week rather than one day?

  8. Hi Glen – I agree, it’s moving toward Black November, or at least Thanksgiving week. I like the term from your site “Giftmas”, since it seems to be a general grab bag of consumption. Even the car business is getting on board.

    We all have to decide how much of this we want to participate in, and how much of what’s left of our personal lives and traditions we want to preserve. Personally, I find the whole Black Friday thing to be way overdone. With the internet, there are bargains all over the place all the time. Black Friday is a marketing coup where all the big merchants do an outstanding job of manufacturing urgency and turning it into an Event, one that transcends the holidays themselves.

    In the end, I fully expect that Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas and even New Years will be footnotes in the Black Friday story.

  9. So as a quick epilogue to this topic, just hit on a news article from the AP with some figures regarding the holiday weekend. Stores were up about 2.3% overall vs last year for the whole weekend. However stores were down 13.2% on Friday. Opening on Thanksgiving primarily resulted in pulling a lot of sales forward instead of growing the overall amount. All the trouble and folks kept from staying with family due to work for a paltry 2.3%. Perhaps this will discourage the new tradition of gray thursday among retailers and lead to more store choosing to do the right thing and remain closed.

  10. Hi Jared – I saw those numbers and was very encouraged by them. Maybe us detractors are having an impact! Or maybe people are getting wise to the con job!

    I agree on pulling business forward, that’s really what Black Friday is all about. It doesn’t increase sales overall, but it pulls what sales there are into a tigher time frame. The whole purpose is to pirate business from competitors. It doesn’t really result in new business, after all, even with the sales, people still have only a limited amount of money to spend.

    The other thing I keep thinking about is that with the internet, there are sales all the time – Black Friday is really meaningless. especially when the real draw is the 10 deeply discounted door sales for the hundreds of people waiting outside. I won’t stand in line, or give up my holiday for that.

    Thanks for the post script – I really think this topic is more important than we generally think.

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