By Marianne Smallwood
On Thanksgiving Day, more than 9 out of every 10 Americans will be celebrating one of the country’s most treasured holidays. Over 46 million people will travel, eat bountiful meals of turkey and stuffing, watch football, and express thanks for loved ones in their lives. Taking root in a cherished (and historically controversial) time long ago when pilgrims and Native Americans broke bread and feasted together in goodwill, Thanksgiving Day is recognized as a day when Americans come together to share meals and love with family and friends. And the day after, more than 96 million people will go shopping.
Now where did that come from? While Black Friday is generally understood as the time of year when retailers finally go from the red (operating at a loss) into the black (earning a profit), this widely-held theory, is in fact, inaccurate. Black Friday originated in the 1950s in Philadelphia, when suburban shoppers and tourists would flood into the city after Thanksgiving and ahead of the annual Army-Navy Saturday football game. Philadelphia police would have to work overtime, traffic worsened and the increased crowds led to increases in shoplifting. Dubbed as “Black Friday” by local authorities for the stress on their resources, it wasn’t until the late 1980s when local and national retailers began using the day to their advantage, offering annual discounts to lure shoppers to stores and reshaping the narrative that more positively describes Black Friday as the point in which stores turn a profit.
And although presented as an enjoyable rite of passage in which unbeatable deals are offered on must-have items, Black Friday has regularly resulted in crime, injury and death. In 2008, two men were shot at a Toys R’ Us when their female companions began squabbling while shopping. Also in 2008, a Walmart employee was crushed to death when 200 shoppers rushed the entrance doors to reach store deals; a 28-year old pregnant woman and three others were also taken to the hospital. In 2011, a 61-year-old man fell to the floor at a Target in West Virginia; rather than aid the man, shoppers kept walking and even stepped over his body. If shopping at all costs has become a bigger priority than family, friends and helping others, that’s a bigger problem that no amount of thanks and turkey can justify.
Attracted by glossy ads and tweets, I’ve also shopped on Black Friday, and my experience has always been frustrating and disappointing. I found myself buying things I didn’t need or want simply to justify the time I’d wasted driving to stores, hunting for parking and fighting through the crowds. As consumers increasingly turn to online purchasing to avoid said crowds, retailers have made Black Friday deals available online, offering bargains and free shipping all week long. Why fight unnecessarily for parking spaces and $50 off when you could pre-purchase from the comfort of your own home? Why are we compelled to spend a holiday shopping amongst thousands of other people, looking for things we don't need but will buy simply because they're on sale?
Several retailers support prioritizing family over shopping frenzy and are helping to make the decision easier. Barnes & Noble, GameStop, Costco and TJ Maxx are all closed on Thanksgiving Day. Outdoor retailer REI has set an even higher bar by closing its doors on both Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday and giving its 12,000 employees a paid day off to #OptOutside.
Over 1 million people have responded enthusiastically to REI's mandate, sharing photos on social media and describing their plans for spending Black Friday outside and away from any mass consumerism. Building on #OptOutside, state governments in Minnesota, Delaware, Colorado and Oregon have waived all fees for state parks on Black Friday; California and Washington state are also offering free entrance to select national parks. After a day in which the average American will consume 4,500 calories, these states are encouraging their residents to spend time with family and friends by heading outside and hiking off the holiday calories for free.
Being in the great outdoors with loved ones beats fighting in crowds to buy things we don’t need. Forget the malls and crowds -- let’s go outside and celebrate #FreshAirFriday instead.
Image credit: Suzi Pratt/Getty Images for REI
Marianne Smallwood is currently serving as a U.S. diplomat in Thailand. Follow Marianne on Twitter at: twitter.com/marianne_is