The commercialization of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, underpinned by the now infamous Black Friday, is no longer a surprise to retailers or consumers – yet the scale and impact of the event goes from high to ground-breaking high. With record spends anticipated year on year, Black Friday and its counterpart Cyber Monday continue to rule the retail calendar—in the West. China’s Singles’ Day, first monetized by Alibaba in 2008 and held annually on November 11, has quickly grown to become the ultimate international shopping event, moving more merchandise than America’s flagship events combined. Amid these two international sprees, we put together some of the biggest, and most surprising, statistics surrounding our holiday spending, to give context to this global phenomenon.
Black Friday: A history
Black Friday’s dark name has a fittingly murky history. The first recorded use of the term comes from Philadelphia, USA; the annual influx of downtown traffic, both human and vehicular, prompted the police force to nickname the day as “Black” as early as 1961. The idea was not entirely original, following the naming convention set earlier in the century by the Black Tuesday and Black Thursday which signalled the start of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Despite the catastrophic associations of the moniker, retailers could not deny the commercial pull of the Thanksgiving weekend; so, in a mass marketing move, Black Friday was rebranded as the day that profits jumped from the negative red into the positive black.
The new calendar
Black Friday has expanded far beyond its day-long remit, creating an extended Thanksgiving shopping period that commences before the holiday itself and carries through to the following week. Cyber Monday, to give its modern name, was so-called in response to the online traffic peak seen on the day, caused by a weekend-worth of browsers finally converting sales—some attempting to skip the Black Friday crowds, others waiting on last-minute incentives, others still waiting on office time and bandwidth to get the job done. Giving Tuesday, established in 2012, closes the week, aiming to counter some of the explicit consumerism and commercialization by encouraging charitable giving amid the purchase of gifts and cut-price electronics.
This year, Cyber Week is forecast to take $29 billion in the U.S. alone.
Shopping around the world
Black Friday may dominate America and much of the West, but China’s Singles’ Day has raised a new bar. Held on November 11, the “bare branches” signified by the written date relate to the country’s singles who, in the 1990s, formed an unofficial celebration of their marital status. Spotting an opportunity ahead of the curve, Alibaba’s Jack Ma monetized the occasion and so created the world’s biggest shopping event: a $38 billion extravaganza in 2019, topping 2018’s $30.7 billion with ease. Now expanding outside of China, the day attracted custom from more than half a billion people through Alibaba’s network of internationally tailored ecommerce merchants. Over 200,000 brands, including global giants like Apple and L’Oréal, took part.
Not everyone is excited about these global shopping extravaganzas. As more consumers focus on provenance and sustainability in their day-to-day purchases, the excesses of Black Friday, Singles’ Day, et al. appear to move in the opposite direction. In previous years, the violence and aggression of Black Friday in-store sales has made headlines; so far this year, there have been multiple reports of a delivery system destroyed in China, as retailers rush to fulfil their 11/11 orders.
Some brands take Black Friday as an opportunity to make a statement on their sustainable credentials. U.S. outdoor brand REI will close its doors for the fifth year of its #OptOutside campaign, encouraging customers to join nationwide clean-up efforts instead. Cosmetics giant Deciem has approached the holiday season at a slower pace—offering 23% discount across the entire month of November, to avoid consumer frenzy. Patagonia has, in the past, donated all Black Friday takings to environmental causes. Will these pioneering non-partakers be able to turn the tide of Black Friday’s multi-billion-dollar cashflow? Only time will tell.
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