Back in 2012, Matt Yglesias wrote a Slate article complaining about the degradation of the term “Cobb salad.” Once a term for a salad containing egg, bacon, chicken, avocado, tomato, and blue cheese, it now means basically any salad with a lot of stuff in it. This has also happened to “martini,” which now seems to mean any spiritous cocktail served straight up in a cocktail glass. (Here, for example, is a tequila-and-avocado martini recipe published by Town & Country magazine.) And it has happened to “Black Friday,” which is increasingly just an umbrella term for any kind of shopping in late autumn that entails some semblance of having gotten a deal, on any day of the week.
The first Black Friday email solicitation I got this year came on Monday, October 28 — 32 days before the day after Thanksgiving, when Black Friday is traditionally observed — and it told me that if I joined Vida Fitness, a Washington, D.C., gym where I occasionally work out on business trips, I would be doing so just in time for “member-only Black Friday deals.”
On Friday, November 8, the Napa Valley Distillery told me that “every Friday is Black Friday,” a message they repeated on November 15 and November 22. On November 14, Johnston & Murphy pitched their “Black Friday preview sale” (italics in original), and Travel & Leisure proposed ways to “save big before Black Friday.” Adidas urged me to “get set for Black Friday” on November 16, and on November 17, the Coravin wine-pouring system offered me early access to their Black Friday pricing if I joined their members’ club.
On November 21, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts emailed to tell me that “Tomorrow, it’s Black Friday!” thus forcing me to investigate whether Black Friday is observed a week early in Canada. It’s not, and I don’t know what was up with that email; however, I have now learned that in Quebec, Black Friday is called “Vendredi Fou,” or “Crazy Friday”; and that “Vendredi Fou” sales have become more popular in recent years because the weak Canadian dollar has discouraged Canadians from traveling to the U.S. for our Black Friday deals.
The biggest-ticket Black Friday proposal came from Hertz, which advised me on November 11 that Black Friday would be a great day to buy a used car from Hertz Car Sales. Though at the link, there was no indication of any pricing that would make Black Friday an especially great day to do so, which gets at another confounding aspect of Black Friday: It not only lasts much longer than one day; it not only comes from vendors you wouldn’t typically associate holiday sales with, such as gyms and museums; it also doesn’t necessarily entail better pricing than shopping at other times. For example, that Black Friday deal the Montreal museum wanted to tell me about, where you get a free coffee-table book with membership? It’s available until January 10, 2020. Not to go all millennial Andy Rooney on you, but: If the offer is available for more than a month, that’s not a sale; it’s just a price.
But then, maybe this is what consumers want? People love the feeling of having gotten a bargain. So why shouldn’t every Friday be Black Friday, so people can experience that doorbuster joy on more days of the year? If you’re the sort of person who gets a warm feeling out of the mere appearance of a bargain, you’re made better off. And if you’re a highly quantitative deal-hunter, the real deals are out there, and you get to feel even better for having weeded through the vast number of fake sales to find the real ones.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that when academic researchers study Black Friday shoppers they find participation in sale shopping isn’t just about getting the best price. Of course, people like a good price. But they also like the feeling of having won at shopping. Frenzied sales are a competitive experience and, for those who do it with friends or family, a bonding one. When you come home with the doorbuster television, you didn’t just get a cheap television, you succeeded at something that allowed you to get a cheap television that others could not. And even if you didn’t get to the doorbuster item in time, well, at least you had an experience.
You take away the shopper’s sale experience at your peril, as Ron Johnson learned the hard way when he left Apple to become JCPenney’s CEO in 2012. One of Johnson’s big ideas was that the mid-price retailer should stop having so many sales. Instead, pricing would be “Fair and Square Every Day” — not deeply discounted, but well below Penney’s old list prices so customers wouldn’t have to check circulars and clip coupons to know when and how to shop. They could just come in and get a fair price whenever they wanted clothing or home goods. Customers, of course, hated this. Penney’s merchandise wasn’t unique enough to replicate the strategies that had worked for Johnson when he developed Apple’s wildly successful retail channels. JCPenney could not rely on perceptions of exclusivity and quality to sell at round, everyday prices; it needed markdown tags to reassure customers they were getting a deal.
Naturally, JCPenney stores will open for Black Friday this week at 2 p.m. on Thursday, several hours before competitors like Macy’s and Walmart, which also now open for Black Friday on Thanksgiving, but at least wait for people to have plausibly finished dinner. It’s never too early to get a jump on the deals; after all, if you don’t start your Black Friday shopping until Thanksgiving, you’ve already started a month late.