What Is Black Friday?

Black Friday explained

Image shows the origins of the name "Black Friday" including the name originates in reference to the volume of shoppers that created traffic accidents and sometimes even violence. As one of the more profitable retail days of the year, Black Friday began to take on a positive connotation. Retailers now offer deep discounts only available on that day.

Chloe Giroux © The Balance

Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving. Retailers typically offer steep discounts on Black Friday to kick off the holiday season.

Learn more about Black Friday, including how many people shop, what the average amount spent is, and how it impacts the retail industry.

Definition and Example of Black Friday

Black Friday is an informal name used to describe the day after Thanksgiving. It's often the busiest shopping day of the year, because it kicks off the holiday season. This season is crucial for the economy, especially for some retailers, such as jewelers.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) expected 158.3 million people to shop online or in-store over Thanksgiving weekend in 2021, a slight increase over 2020. When including people who shop on multiple days during Black Friday weekend, the NRF predicted that 227.9 million shoppers would shop online or in person. In total, 179.8 million unique shoppers made in-store and online purchases during the 2021 holiday weekend, exceeding NRF’s initial expectations by over 21 million.

Holiday Shopping Season Starts Earlier Than Black Friday

The NRF found that 61% of holiday shoppers had started their shopping earlier in 2021 than they normally do. The average consumer had already finished 28% of their shopping, too.

Though supply chain shortages have shoppers worried this year, that wasn't the case in 2020, when 69% of shoppers said they were able to find all or most of what they had been looking to buy. Another 84% said were confident that they would receive items they purchased online in time for the holidays.

The NRF found that the three most popular toys to buy in 2021 were LEGOs, Barbie, cars, and trucks, and dolls. Consumers indicated the top items they planned to buy for gifts were clothing, gift cards, and toys. The NRF found that shoppers planned to buy three to four gift cards, spending an average of $147 to $196, with total sales expected to reach $28.1 billion in 2021.

How Does Black Friday Work?

Black Friday is part of the holiday shopping season. Having a profitable Black Friday is essential for many retailers, especially toy and game stores. Since 2017, the holiday season has amounted to 19% or more of annual sales for many retailers, according to the NRF.

Some retailers start their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day, and deals typically run throughout the weekend. In 2020, for example, shoppers spent an average of $311.75 from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday (the first Monday after Thanksgiving). To put that into perspective, the average shopper spent $997.79 total during the entire holiday season in 2020. In 2021, shoppers had planned to spend about $997.73 on gifts, decorations, food, and other purchases for themselves and their families.

The best Black Friday deals are, surprisingly, not on Black Friday. Many retailers, including Amazon, offer sales earlier and earlier, upstaging Black Friday itself. The competition has gotten so fierce that stores have innovated new ways to get your dollar, sometimes starting much earlier in the year.

Historical Black Friday Spending Data

We gathered nearly 20 years of holiday sales data from the NRF and found that the average annual increase in Black Friday spending has been 3.5%. Before the 2008 financial crisis, the average annual increase was 4.8%.

Year Spent per Shopper Total Spent Percent Increase
2002 N/A $416.40 billion 2.1%
2003 N/A $437.60 billion 5.1%
2004 N/A $467.20 billion 6.8%
2005 $734.69 $496.00 billion 6.2%
2006 $750.70 $512.10 billion 3.2%
2007 $755.13 $526.00 billion 2.7%
2008 $694.19 $501.50 billion -4.7%
2009 $681.83 $502.67 billion 0.2%
2010 $718.98 $528.77 billion 5.2%
2011 $740.57 $553.26 billion 4.6%
2012 $752.24 $567.65 billion 2.6%
2013 $767.24 $583.52 billion 2.8%
2014 $802.45 $611.52 billion 4.8%
2015 $805.65 $628.17 billion 2.7%
2016 $935.58 $646.72 billion 3.0%
2017 $967.13 $679.24 billion 5.0%
2018 $1,007.24 $691.48 billion 1.8%
2019 $1,047.83 $718.64 billion 3.9%
2020 $997.79 $777.35 billion 8.2%
2021 (projected) $997.73 $843.40-$859.00 billion 8.5%-10.5%

Black Friday vs. Cyber Monday

Black Friday Cyber Monday
Refers to sales in brick-and-mortar stores and online. Refers to online sales.
Busiest holiday shopping day of the year in total shoppers. Shoppers spend more money than they do on Black Friday.

The Monday following the weekend after Black Friday is known as "Cyber Monday," when many people buy gifts online, and it has become a shopping event in itself. It's typically the biggest online shopping day of the year, and in some years it has surpassed Black Friday in terms of total sales. In 2020, Cyber Monday sales totaled $10.8 billion, which outpaced Black Friday's total sales of $9.4 billion. However, in 2021, Cyber Monday sales dropped to $10.7 billion, down 1.4% according to Adobe Analytics.

Black Friday is a popular online shopping day as well, with 88 million shoppers reported in 2021. In 2020, more than 100 million shopped online on Black Friday, up from 93.2 million people in 2019.

Large retail stores like Best Buy and Walmart may continue trying to get Black Friday shoppers into their stores, but the numbers have been dwindling over the years. In 2021, the number of people who shopped in stores increased from the previous year. Retailers saw an increase in foot traffic, with approximately 104.9 million shoppers visiting stores, up from 92.3 million in 2020. The overall number of online shoppers decreased to a total of 127.8 million from 145.4 million the previous year.

Although shoppers will never completely abandon brick-and-mortar stores, they expect retailers to offer a convenient online alternative. Many retailers are seeing sales boosts by allowing consumers to buy online and pick up in-store.

Key Takeaways

  • Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving. Retailers typically offer steep discounts on Black Friday to kick off the holiday season.
  • It's a critical day for the retail sector, as the holiday season can account for 20% or more of annual sales for many retailers. 
  • Cyber Monday is the Monday after Thanksgiving. Its total sales were higher than those of Black Friday in 2020.