Goodbye, Black Friday!

Do you remember the Blue Laws? They were based on Christian religious doctrine, and were designed to prevent any retail business from operating on Sundays. Instead, Sundays were dedicated to attendance at church services and associated religious gatherings.

Prior to Henry Ford’s adoption of the five day work week in 1926, factory workers in sweatshops would work six days a week and then rush to their neighborhood stores (and saloons) to purchase merchandise (and libations) on Saturday evenings. They needed to do so because the establishments would be closed, by law, every Sunday.

Most stores now remain open seven days a week, and many operate 24 hours a day. But despite the abolition of Prohibition (i.e. the criminalization of liquor sales) in the United States during the early 1930s, certain states still outlaw the sale of liquor on Sundays, as well as any sales in supermarkets on any day of the week.

Interestingly, other relics of the Blue Law era have survived as American traditions, if not as legal restrictions. One such policy, though, is quickly coming to an end, and is taking the tradition of Black Friday down with it.

The Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving Day, for instance, has been viewed as a sacrosanct time for family gatherings since it was established as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Thanksgiving actually replaced an older holiday called Evacuation Day, celebrated in the northeastern United States on November 25, as the day when the British Army formally withdrew from New York City after their loss of the Colonies in the American Revolution.

It is not illegal to ask employees to work on Thanksgiving, or on other national holidays, in the United States. In fact, retail stores have always remained open on many national holidays throughout the year, such as Veterans Day on November 11. Nevertheless, to respect the tradition of Thanksgiving Day, most retailers have shut down in order to grant their employees time to spend with their families.

The unusual closure, quite conveniently, gave those very stores the opportunity to stage “grand re-openings” on each Friday after Thanksgiving  to kick off the Christmas shopping season. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were (and continue to be) so lucrative that the stores would willingly lose money during all of the weeks before Thanksgiving in order to gear up for the holiday sales season.

The Friday after Thanksgiving would thus represent the day when most stores “broke into the black” and began reaping profits for the year. And so the term “Black Friday” evolved as a connotation of profits and prosperity in the retail industry.

Now It’s Black Thursday!

During much of the twentieth century, retailers opened for business at their customary times on Black Fridays. But then, in order to beat the competition, many store chains opened earlier and earlier on those mornings. And the “grand opening” specials become more and more extravagant, with many stores offering customers prices on popular products that fell well below their wholesale costs.

Last year, several chains opened during the wee hours of Black Friday morning, well before sunrise. But only this year did two different retail chains actually cross the midnight hour and open for business before midnight on Thursday evening. Toys R Us decided to open at 9:00 pm and Walmart followed at 10:00 pm; Target and others followed by opening precisely at midnight.

Many citizens were aghast at this intrusion on the tradition of Thanksgiving dinner; 200,000 Target employees and other concerned citizens actually signed a public petition to protest their employer’s decision. But most simply considered the shift of Black Friday’s opening times to Thanksgiving evening to be an inevitable reflection of evolving social values.

It’s Always Money

The reason for these shifting values? It’s always a matter of money. And it’s not just a consideration for retail stores and supermarkets; many other industries are witnessing the decline of cultural traditions as well.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for instance, has just passed legislation to legalize large-scale casino gambling projects; New York State is continuing to pursue similar projects too. And the tradition of prohibiting obscenity from broadcast television programming is continually eroding through court decisions and other causes.

Furthermore, although many online retailers promote Cyber Monday (i.e. the Monday after Thanksgiving, a regular business day) as a day of special offers, they all — including such titans as Amazon — routinely remain open in a virtual sense 365 days a year. In other words, they’ve never been constrained by any blue law limitations whatsoever.

With the tradition of special Friday offers now migrating to Thanksgiving Thursday in “real world” stores, and to Cyber Monday in online stores, it is difficult to expect that Black Friday will continue to exist in its historical form. For citizens who actually appreciate the support that such laws give to people of faith and to their family values, the tradition will be sorely missed indeed.