What Is Black Friday?

Definition & Examples of Black Friday

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.

What Is 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.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), 84.2 million people shopped in stores on Black Friday in 2019, and 37.8 million people shopped in stores on Thanksgiving Day. A total of 189.6 million people shopped over the four-day Black Friday weekend in 2019, a 14% increase over 2018. Black Friday wasn't the biggest shopping day of the year in 2019, though. That honor went to Super Saturday, which is the Saturday before Christmas.

The Holiday Shopping Season Starts Earlier Than Black Friday

In the annual November report, the NRF found that about 42% of holiday shoppers had started their shopping earlier than they normally do, with 59% saying they had started making holiday purchases by the beginning of November. And that shopping hasn't only been online. Seventy percent of the survey's respondents said they have felt safe shopping in stores so far this holiday season.

Retailers started promoting holiday shopping early this year, many stocking shelves in October 2020. As a result, the NRF found that 69% of shoppers said they have been able to find all or most of what they've been looking to buy so far. Another 84% said they are confident that they will receive items they've purchased online in time for the holidays.

The survey found that the three most popular items to buy in 2020 are clothing and accessories, gift cards/certificates, and toys. While gift cards rank second, the NRF found that shoppers plan to buy three to four gift cards, spending an average of about $163 per person, with total sales expected to reach $27.5 billion in 2020.

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. The holiday season amounts to almost 20% 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 2019, shoppers spent an average of $361.90 from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday (the first Monday after Thanksgiving). To put that into perspective, shoppers were expected to spend about $1,007 each during the entire holiday season in 2018. In 2020, shoppers plan to spend about $997.79 on gifts, decorations, food, and other purchases for themselves and their families.

We gathered the past almost 20 years of holiday sales data. The average annual increase is 3.4%, thanks to the steep decline in 2008. Before the 2008 financial crisis, the average annual increase was 4.8% (between 2002 and 2007).

Year Spent per Shopper Total Spent Percent Increase
2002 N/A $416.4 billion N/A
2003 N/A $437.6 billion 5.1%
2004 N/A $467.2 billion 6.8%
2005 $734.69 $496.0 billion 6.2%
2006 $750.70 $512.1 billion 3.2%
2007 $755.13 $526.0 billion 2.7%
2008 $694.19 $501.5 billion -4.7%
2009 $681.83 $502.7 billion 1.2%
2010 $718.98 $528.8 billion 5.2%
2011 $740.57 $553.3 billion 4.6%
2012 $752.24 $567.6 billion 2.6%
2013 $767.24 $584.4 billion 3.0%
2014 $802.45 $614.1 billion 5.1%
2015 $805.65 $632.9 billion 3.1%
2016 $935.58 $652.6 billion 3.1%
2017 $967.13 $687.4 billion 5.3%
2018 $1,007.24 $700.7 billion 1.9%
2019 $1,047.83 $729.1 billion 4.1%

Black Friday vs. Cyber Monday

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 this year is so fierce, stores are innovating new ways to get your dollar. 

Cyber Monday has become a shopping event in itself. It's typically the biggest online shopping day of the year, and it some years it has surpassed Black Friday in terms of total sales. In 2019, Cyber Monday sales totaled more than $9 billion, which outpaced Black Friday's total sales of $7.4 billion.

Black Friday is a popular online shopping day as well. In 2019, 93.2 million people shopped online on Black Friday, compared to the 65.2 million that did in 2018.

For 2020, large retail stores like Best Buy and Walmart may continue trying to get Black Friday shoppers into their stores, but 60% of shoppers say they plan to do their holiday shopping online this 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.

Black Friday Cyber Monday
Refers to sales in brick-and-mortar stores and online Refers to online sales
Busiest shopping day of the year in total shoppers Biggest shopping day of the year in total sales

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 accounts for almost 20% or more of annual sales for many retailers. 
  • Cyber Monday is the Monday after Thanksgiving. Its total sales were higher than Black Friday in 2019.