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How Black Friday Has Evolved Throughout The Years


Data from cash registers show that Black Friday shopping is growing while Thanksgiving Day sales have declined. Seems like more people prefer to spend today eating turkey, maybe watching football. That's the case with NPR's Sonari Glinton. Here's his story on the evolution of Black Friday.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I'm doing what millions of people do on the day before Thanksgiving - standing in the parking lot of my grocery store. And when I'm finished with this story, I'm going to pick up some sweet potatoes, scallions and garlic for my Thanksgiving dinner.

Now, most years, I would not have time to do this because, well, for the last five or six years, I've covered Black Friday, Gray Thursday. Heck, two years ago, we were talking about Gray Wednesday with many stores opening at midnight on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

MARSHAL COHEN: Remember the lines that used to wrap around buildings as consumers were waiting a day in advance for the stores to open at a certain time period that would offer them the opportunity to get those limited number of items at great prices?

GLINTON: Oh, boy, do I remember. Now that's Marshal Cohen. He's a retail analyst with The NPD Group. And we've made a bit of a tradition to check in on each other on the holiday. Cohen says retailers are coming to their senses, egged on by the consumer.

COHEN: So what we're seeing is the retailers saying, wait a minute, if we opened up on Thursday, we weren't as busy on Friday. And if we didn't open up on Thursday, we were really busy on Friday. So retailers began to recognize that it wasn't critical for them to sit there and open up on Thanksgiving Day. So the novelty of it wore off.

GLINTON: So who won (laughter)?

COHEN: Basically, the consumer won.

GLINTON: According to The NPD Group and some other consumer studies, in 2014, the most popular time for shopping during the Thanksgiving season was Thanksgiving at 6 p.m., whereas in 2016, the most popular time was Black Friday at noon.

Now I've been interrupting Sucharita Kodali's Thanksgiving for years now. She's an analyst with Forrester Research. She says, essentially, consumers rebelled against the changing shopping calendar.

SUCHARITA KODALI: The consumer mindset has always kind of psychologically been that the holiday shopping season starts at Thanksgiving and ends at Christmas. That's sort of the sacred timeframe.

And when you move it earlier and earlier to the Thursday of Thanksgiving, even the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I think that it just violates this sense of what's necessary and what is the right thing to do for a lot of consumers.

GLINTON: OK, here's the most interesting thing about all this. According to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett - she's an economic geographer at the University of Southern California - we're less materialistic.

ELIZABETH CURRID-HALKETT: I do think, as a society, we are getting less materialistic. So we can see that in a cultural way in just the way we talk about things. We can see that in movements like voluntary simplicity, which is when people proactively strip down their lives of material goods. We can also see it in the data.

GLINTON: Currid-Halkett and her doctoral student, Hyojung Lee, have been looking at spending patterns not just during the holidays.

CURRID-HALKETT: This is going to sound strange, but oddly enough, the top income groups - particularly the top 1 percent - witnessed a decline in their material spending and an increase in their more experienced-driven, quality-of-life spending.

GLINTON: Currid-Halkett says it's not just the rich. She has a book called "The Sum Of Small Things." She says the economy is mature. We've made a lot of stuff, and we have a lot of stuff. And to be super scientific, we're getting tired of all of it and kind of scaling back.

CURRID-HALKETT: So I think that we are, as a society, re-emphasizing the importance of family and friends and experiences, and that's why spending Thanksgiving - as in the whole day - with each other is much more important than getting a deal at a shop.

GLINTON: All right, you heard it from the expert. The time you spend with your family is more important than getting a deal. OK, it's getting real in this parking lot. I got to run in. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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