Complex Made Simple

The rise of Black Friday: Authentic deals, or manipulative marketing?

With Black Friday almost upon us, we look at the history of this massive shopping festival, as well as the shady marketing tactics that often come into play.

What started as an American shopping festival has spilled the world over, and now regions like the GCC have a Black, White and even Yellow Friday Retailers will use their most powerful tool to win you over: Your fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) The true origin of Black Friday is darker than you think

Today, the world has come to know the weekend after US holiday Thanksgiving Day (and usually the 4th weekend of November) as the time of killer deals and massive crowds: Black Friday.

What started as an American shopping festival has spilled the world over, and now regions like the GCC have a Black, White and even Yellow Friday. All they have in common is that they are massive shopping festivals with supposedly unbeatable deals. 

But how did we get here? Today, we look at why Black Friday has found as much success as it has, the shady side of the shopping bonanza, as well as its history.

The bright side to Black Friday…

Black Friday’s allure is two-fold: Vendors look to make huge sales, especially on clearance items they might have struggled to sell during the year, and consumers are able to afford their items of choice at a much lower price, be it a TV, smartphone or piece of expensive clothing. 

…and the dark sideCustomers in Greece during Black FridayPerhaps the most common imagery we often associate with the shopping bonanza that is Black Friday is the stampeding crowds in US stores, which brings about the dubious nature of capitalism and consumerism, but that’s a discussion for another day. 

What these customers don’t realize that they aren’t as deal-savvy as they think they are. Many of the so-called ‘killer deals’ and ‘limited time offers’ they think they are capitalizing on are psychological marketing tricks retailers use to reel in customers. 

Many of these highly discounted products you see in the storefront are older model TVs that have been gathering dust for months in warehouses, or lower-quality imports. Sure, time is short – retailers will make sure to remind you of that constantly – but don’t let you fear of missing out (FOMO as it’s known in the industry) drag you into a purchase you’ll later regret. The numbers clearly indicate this is a recurring trend. Last year, fashion retailers across the UK were hit by a £1.6 billion ($2.067 billion) bill as a result of returns from the Black Friday sales, according to Retail Gazette. 

“When we shop, 85% of what we do is irrational,” consumer specialist and author Martin Lindstrom tells Bloomberg.

There are many tricks that retailers use. Some online sellers quietly list items at higher prices a few weeks before the sale so that their discounts seem significant – when in fact their ‘discounted prices’ are actually the original listings, slapped with a 25% sticker. Sellers on Amazon are famous for this. 

Most of these marketing tricks eventually succeed – after all, who doesn’t like to win themselves a deal? The thing is, stores will encourage customers to also opt for non-discounted items, because that’s where the real money is made. Purchasing a discounted PlayStation? Why not shill out for this overpriced branded backpack that can hold your console. Nabbing the latest iPhone? Here’s a $35 rubber cover that you must have to protect it, as well as this $25 screen protection that probably cost us $10 at wholesale. It’s a trick as old as time, but it works. 

In the end, Black Friday, like most marketing strategies, consists of shades of truths and exaggerations. It is up to the consumer to do their research and not rush blindly into a supposed deal. FOMO is often retailers’ greatest tool – don’t fall for it. 

A controversial history
While vendors and buyers might associate Black Friday with major earnings/savings respectively, the original instance of Black Friday was quite darker. 

The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was after two Wall Street traders bought out a large portion of America’s gold in search of a quick profit, only to send the US stock market crashing in 1869.

After that, there are a few circulated stories about the truth behind the naming of the shopping festival. The truth, however, can be traced back to the 50s. 

“Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city,” History.com explains. The police would have to work long shifts to maintain control of the situation, and thus referred to it as Black Friday. 

In 1961, Philadelphia retailers tried to change the controversial name to “Big Friday,” to no avail. The term spread across the country around 1985, after which retailers finally succeeded in spinning it into a positive event, where vendors would get their numbers back in ‘black’ (i.e. make a profit), and customers would get great deals. 

Today, this has spun off into a 4-day shopping period instead of one, and even birthed a post-Internet-era sale dubbed Cyber Monday. Furthermore, the concept has found itself into other countries all across the world, from the UK, to the UAE and Australia. 

This year, 72% of Emirati men plan to take part in Black Friday, compared to 70% of women, according to a new survey from discount site Picodi.com. Men are also willing to spend on average about AED 1,100 ($300) compared to AED 760 ($207) for women on Black Friday, which falls on November 29 this year, according to the poll of around 530 respondents – half male and half female.