Retailers Hope Friday Puts Them in the Black

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

Black Friday. The words shoot dread and delight along the spines of retailers and avid shoppers alike.

Dread at the long lines and jostling crowds on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Delight at the potential profits for retailers, and good deals for consumers looking to stock up on holiday gifts.

Wikipedia cites two newspaper articles from Nov. 29, 1975, as the earliest reference to Black Friday, in the context of police and bus drivers complaining about the hectic crowds of shoppers on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

But retail experts interviewed for this story said the name refers to the first day that store ledger entries turn black, signifying profit, after almost 11 months of red ink.

"You would make all your profits in the last six weeks of the year," said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C. "As more of these companies have been publicly held, the shareholders won't let someone run for 101/2 months without making money."

Now, it's a day of heightened adrenaline as stores hope brisk Black Friday sales will portend a profitable holiday season, and customers line up as early as Thanksgiving midnight to be first in line for the latest gadget offered at discount.

When Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at the NPD Group, worked for Bloomingdale's, some employees would stay in the stores through midnight, only catching a few winks on the floor-model beds.

"The real key here is that 61 percent of consumers start their holiday shopping on that Black Friday weekend or later," said Cohen, who is based in Port Washington, N.Y. "It becomes really important to be poised and prepared."

"What you have across the country is retailers staring at their computer screens as the numbers tick up slowly or quickly," said Dan Hess, chief executive officer of New York-based researcher Merchant Forecast. "These retailers budget the amount of business they need to do per minute."

In the 12 years Hess worked for Macy's, being in the Thanksgiving Day parade was a privilege. It also meant an exhausting Black Friday.

"You had to be in Newark for your costume at 2:30 in the morning and you were finished at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. It was your only day off between Thanksgiving and Christmas," he said. "You had a lot of people overtired on Friday and unable to concentrate."

This article was originally published on Tuesday, November 20, 2007, by Newhouse News Service.