The development of Black Friday as a global sales phenomenon

9 minutes to read
Iris Dumoulin

Black Friday is known all over the world for its extreme sales and discounts, but how did this originally American sales day turn out to be such a global success?

What is Black friday?

The 23rd of November 2018, the streets of America are crowded with people trying to profit from sales on products like TV’s, game consoles, clothes, and furniture. The day after everyone has finished their Thanksgiving meal and shown their gratitude to all the good things in life, consumers are waiting in line at six in the morning for their favorite stores to open early. This day full of sales, profit, crowds, and chaos is known as Black Friday.

Every year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, stores show customers their biggest sales of the year, and it’s not without success. Black Friday has become the busiest shopping day of the year, both offline and online.  

The development of Black Friday is an interesting example of globalization

But this global sales phenomenon is not limited to the United States of America anymore. Retailers in countries all over the world are participating in Black Friday sales, while more and more consumers profit from the best sales out there, whether it’s in shopping malls or from their own couch with a smartphone.

But how, and why, did Black Friday turn out to be such a successful global phenomenon? Can you still connect it to Thanksgiving Day, or has Black Friday become a holiday in itself? The development of Black Friday is an interesting example of globalization.

The history of Black Friday

The origins of Black Friday as we know it can be found back in the 1950s. Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, police in Philadelphia had to deal with extreme pedestrian and vehicle traffic in advance of the Army-Navy football game. They used the term Black Friday to refer to this day, as they had to work extra long shifts and could not take the day off.

By 1961, the term Black Friday had caught on and spread throughout Philadelphia. As it was not seen as a positive term, merchants in the area of Philadelphia tried to change it to ‘Big Friday’ to remove the negative connotations. This turned out to be unsuccessful, as the term Black Friday kept spreading throughout the United States.

In the late 1980s, retailers created a more positive image of Black Friday, that made it more about them and their customers. They created the “red to black” backstory, which was about the idea that this was the day that stores in America finally made a profit: their numbers went from red to black.

The following years, Black Friday developed itself as a day of sales and shopping. After the 1990s it became a national fixture, and it wasn’t until the late 2000s that it became the busiest shopping day of the year, surpassing the day before Christmas. Crowds of shoppers find themselves at shopping malls to profit from the best bargains available, and this sometimes even leads to people being heavily injured.

In 2008, a Walmart employee called Jdimytai Damour even died in a stampede of Black Friday shoppers. Needless to say that Black Friday is extremely popular, both online and offline.

The globalization of Black Friday

Black Friday is not a federal holiday in the United States but is considered a public holiday in some states. But now this day of sales is no longer limited to America. Stores around the world are holding their own sales in the Thanksgiving weekend in competition with American retailers, even though Thanksgiving is an American holiday.

As Thanksgiving itself would not necessarily be a profitable business around the world, it’s an interesting fact that Black Friday, in fact, did spread around the world, and not without success. Mostly in Europe, businesses are clever to go with the American trend to make more profit at the beginning of the shopping season by introducing Black Friday as an official event.

Black Friday Sale at Macy's in the United States

The globalization of an event like Black Friday can be connected to the fast developing Internet and the existence of E-commerce. Since the beginning of this century, online stores and online marketplaces like Amazon have drastically changed the way we shop. We can order anything online, from groceries to new furniture, by sitting on our own couch and pressing a few buttons on your smartphone, laptop or tablet.

The globalization of an event like Black Friday can be connected to the fast developing Internet and the existence of E-commerce

This evolution of E-commerce also influenced the people's behavior on Black Friday. It’s no longer necessary to wait hours in line for stores to open. Sales and discounts are now presented online, making it easier for customers to profit from this day of sales. According to ComScore, online sales on Black Friday hit over $2.3 billion, and these are only just from desktop computers users. This is already a 20-percent growth from 2016 and it’s not hard to imagine that before these years, online sales were a lot lower than that.

Black Friday shopping went from crowds of consumers breaking shop windows in the mid-2000s to checking the sales and discounts online in 2017. But even though the evolution of E-commerce changed the way Americans shop on Black Friday, it also created Black Friday as a global sales phenomenon. Not only did this mean that people all across the world could profit from discounts of American stores, but it also influenced retailers in other countries to participate in Black Friday. Whether they introduced it to compete against American retailers or just to start the holiday shopping season, the Black Friday phenomenon keeps spreading more around the world every day.

Global sales phenomena

Black Friday can be seen as an example of a global culture scape in the theory of Arjun Appadurai (1996), who is recognized as a major theorist in globalization studies. Within his studies, he connects globalization to culture, instead of it being considered just an economic and network phenomenon.

The central point he makes in his book Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization is that globalization creates transnational “scapes” in different fields, the main scape being the cultural scape. This is a global form of culture with specific local features that have come into existence as a consequence of globalization.

 Within these "scapes" Appadurai mentions, convergence is created. The world slowly becomes a "village", as we are in some aspects sharing the same global culture. But with the specific local features that these "scapes" bring with them, differences will always be visible. If we connect this to Black Friday, you can see that this sales phenomenon has spread throughout the whole world, but it has its own local characteristics everywhere. Black Friday sales can be found in multiple countries, both offline and online. 

One example of a difference between Black Friday in different countries is the behavior of customers in stores. As noted before, Black Friday is one of the busiest shopping days in the United States. Stores are crowded and customers are fanatic to get the sale they want. But with Black Friday in Canada, on the other hand, the early opening of stores does not come with stampedes like they do in the United States. Instead, customers stay calm and crowds are smaller.


You can discuss the differences in Black Friday itself, but there is also a difference between global sales phenomena in general. Singles Day, on the 11th of November, for example, can be seen as the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday. Just like Black Friday, the event is not an officially recognized public holiday, but it now even surpasses Black Friday as the largest offline and online shopping day in the world. The concept of Singles Day is essentially the same as Black Friday, as the only difference is the “backstory”, referring to its date containing four single numbers.

Singles Day is now the largest shopping day in the world, with Alibaba shoppers spending more than $25.4 billion every year

Another interesting thing about Singles Day is that it originates in China. A lot of areas in China can still be considered peripheral. Especially when Singles Day was created in 1993, China could be seen as a periphery: a country at the margins, where mostly raw materials are produced instead of end products.

As Immanuel Wallerstein (2004) concluded in his book World-systems Analysis: An Introduction, that the world-system is divided into three zones: peripheries, semi-peripheries, and cores. But Wallerstein also noted that the world-system is complex and dynamic, as we see in the developments in China. As noted before, Singles Day is now the largest shopping day in the world, with Alibaba shoppers spending more than $25.4 billion every year. A celebrated shopping day in a peripheral country grew to be more successful than multiple sales days that were created by western core countries.

An illustration for the Chinese e-commerce holiday Singles' day

Another example of a sales phenomenon like Black Friday is Cyber Monday, which is the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday. It was created in 2005, and is now known as the online equivalent to Black Friday. It offers a way for smaller retailers to compete with larger chains online, as lots of consumers are already busy shopping on Black Friday.

In just a few years, Cyber Monday has also grown to be one of the busiest shopping days of the year, like the previously discussed sales events. Cyber Monday is also a perfect example that shows the connection between globalization and online activity. It is considered a global phenomenon, but it’s not (yet?) something that is noticeable offline. It has a specific purpose, and that is to be found in online marketing and commerce. Because of its online existence, it had the opportunity to spread around the world quickly, and now online retailers from all around the world are putting up sales on Cyber Monday.

The age of online shopping

Black Friday is an important day for the holiday season for customers and retailers both. The sales and discounts on Black Friday are something that the whole world is looking forward to, as it is not only a thing from the United States anymore. The development of the internet and e-commerce had a big impact on our shopping behavior, and it’s visible in the way countries all over the world now celebrate Black Friday.

Consumers with access to the internet can all profit from American stores’ discounts, but countries now also celebrate Black Friday in their own way. Not only did Black Friday itself experience growth, but it also influenced the creation of other global sales phenomena, like Singles Day in China. This is an interesting development, as China can still be considered a periphery in a certain way.

In conclusion, the globalization of Black Friday is an ongoing process, and it probably will keep growing and developing for a long time. The crowds, early opening hours and avid customers are definitely still a big part of Black Friday, but the online aspect of this global sales phenomena is probably what will develop the most, as the age of online shopping is definitely not coming to an end.

Black Friday 2018 was, of course, a success, but the 29th of November 2019 will probably be an even bigger one.


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