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25 November 2014

When Black Friday Comes 

In the past, “Black Friday” was associated with financial panics, stock market crashes and bankrupt investors. Today it’s an altogether more upbeat economic event – a US commercial extravaganza that’s steadily taking hold in Europe.

The backstory: On Friday, September 24, 1869, an attempt by two financiers to corner the market on the New York Gold Exchange was foiled when the US government released $4 million worth of gold onto the market, causing prices to plummet. Four years later, the collapse of share prices on the Vienna Stock Exchange on Friday, May 9, 1873, was widely blamed for helping plunge Europe into recession.

Today, however, Black Friday is the start of the US year-end holiday shopping season. The nickname was first assigned by the Philadelphia police to the day after Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in November, because of the chaos as thousands of shoppers flocked to the city’s stores. Over the past half century, it has become an institution across the country.

In the past few years, online retailers and multinational business have brought Black Friday (and its younger cousin Cyber Monday, three days later) across the Atlantic. In the UK, Amazon and Asda, a subsidiary of US giant Walmart, have led the way in offering special discounts, but traditional British businesses like the John Lewis department stores and the Sainsbury’s supermarket group have been quick to follow.

Amazon has also helped to popularize the event in France, along with local e-commerce players, but also the country’s largest media and electronics retailer Fnac and supermarket operator Auchan. In Germany, Black Friday offers started to appear in 2009 and are now an established highlight of the retail calendar.

Some industry members worry that consumers will become so accustomed to discounted goods in the run-up to the holiday season that they will be unwilling to buy full-priced products. But others are happy just to get shoppers through the door, or onto their web site.