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What Is Black Friday?

Shoppers flock into a Target store in Washington, D.C., on Black Friday 2009.

Shoppers flock into a Target store in Washington, D.C., on Black Friday 2009.

Each year on the day after Thanksgiving, millions of Americans stand in lines outside of major retail stores hoping to buy holiday gifts for a tremendous discount. This shopping "holiday" is known as Black Friday, a day when you can find some of the best deals of the year for nearly any type of merchandise you want or need.

Black Friday sales

Black Friday sales get a boost simply because many people have the day off from work as part of the holiday weekend. The shopping that takes place on this day surpasses most any other shopping holiday by an extreme amount.

Estimates gauge that more than 200 million Americans participate in Black Friday shopping for a total expenditure of more than $50 billion. The average American spends nearly $400 in an effort to take advantage of the merchandise discounts that rarely reach such lows.

The origins of Black Friday

Historically, starting the holiday shopping season on the day after Thanksgiving is largely due to the Santa Claus parades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Department stores like Macy’s sponsored such events, which they used as advertising vehicles. It then became a common practice to never advertise for holiday shopping prior to the conclusion of such parades.

While parades are no longer as commonly used as the herald to holiday shopping, they've succeeded in establishing the day after Thanksgiving as the first day for holiday shopping.

MORE: Amazon to Offer Black Friday Deals Every 10 Minutes

The use of the term "Black Friday" to describe this shopping holiday dates back to 1961 in Philadelphia. It was used to describe the crowded pedestrian and vehicle traffic that resulted the day after Thanksgiving. By 1975, the term gained traction and use outside of the city.

These days, retailers have a different explanation for the term. For many companies, Black Friday marks the point in the calendar year when companies go "in the black," or finally begin to turn a profit for the year.

Outside of shopping, the use of Black Friday has a lengthy history. Traditionally, the term signaled that something had gone horribly wrong with the economy. "Black Friday" was first used to describe Sept. 24, 1869, when several financiers tried to corner the gold market and instead crashed the market and caused a depression. In 1873, another panic in the financial markets also began on a Friday.

The Great Depression began after the stock market collapsed on Oct. 29, 1929, but that was Black Tuesday. Another bad day for the stock market, Oct. 19, 1987, was called Black Monday.

The negative connotation of the phrase prompted several officials to try and rename the day to “Big Friday” as a description of the types of deals available. However, such attempts were unsuccessful and the name has stuck.

When Black Friday starts

For years, it was common for retailers to open their doors as early as 5 or 6 a.m. to kick off a lengthy day of extreme sales. Between 2005 and 2010, the opening time shifted earlier each year, until stores such as Target and Best Buy were opening their doors at midnight on Thanksgiving night.

Several retail stores, such as Toys R Us and Walmart, have now taken things a step further to begin their Black Friday deals as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening.

Black Friday online deals

In addition to the popular brick-and-mortar Black Friday deals, many retailers also make use of their websites as additional vehicles for selling merchandise. The term Cyber Black Friday references the online aspect of the shopping holiday and also offers numerous deals and discounts. While it isn’t as well-recognized as Black Friday, many shoppers have found relief from the crowds by turning online to find deals.

MORE: Walmart Black Friday 2013: Best and Worst Deals

Cyber Monday, which occurs on the day when people go back to work after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, is a bright spot for retailers as workers spend their downtime surfing websites for holiday deals. The practice of offering online deals on this day began in 2005. In 2006, sales came in at $610 million, and have more than doubled in recent years. More than 600 retailers now offer discounted deals as part of their participation in the Cyber Monday holiday shopping, which drastically impacts sales figures each year.

Many retailers have started offering online shopping discounts even on the day of Thanksgiving, called Cyber Thanksgiving. The discounts are comparable to Black Friday, though they are by no means a replacement for the extravagant sales that occur then.

The difficulties of crowd control

In recent years, as Black Friday became a bright spot in the shopping season, it was tarnished by reports of violent acts throughout the United States. The stress of holiday shopping and the desire to get the most popular items has caused retail employees to be trampled, shoppers to break out into fights and items to be stolen from shopping carts.

This paints a rather brutal picture for retail shopping, yet despite the dangers and frustrations each individual may feel, the popularity and success of Black Friday shows no signs of diminishing.

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