How Black Friday Became Big Business Around the World

The day after Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings, many partake in an equally gluttonous Black Friday shopping experience. The shopping event has gone international, with at least 129 countries celebrating their own versions of Black Friday. This is despite the fact that none of these countries celebrate the American version of the Thanksgiving holiday.

That’s been the experience of online store owner and Canadian expat Matt Heron, who has lived in Japan for four years. “Even though most people in Japan aren’t aware that it’s American Thanksgiving, many larger retailers in malls, as well as online retailers, take advantage of the name to promote a sale and bring in more customers,” he says via email.

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However, he’s quick to note that the experience overall is markedly different from the mad dashes and swarms of combative people that American Black Friday is known for, calling it “more tame” by a long shot. “People are not waiting in line, or holding out for the Black Friday sales,” he explains. “It feels like somewhat of an average sale as opposed to ‘the largest sale of the year’ like in the U.S.A.”

American Adam Garcia has spent two consecutive Black Fridays visiting friends in Germany. “It’s there and everybody has heard of it,” he says via email. He echoes Heron’s sentiment that the discounts aren’t as drastic as in the U.S. “They’ll usually offer a 5-10 percent discount on certain products, rarely more. And some will even slightly bump up the prices in October, just so they could slide them back and call it a Black Friday sale.”

“When I lived in Turkey several years ago, I had noticed and commented to friends on how Turkey had embraced Black Friday sales and yet ironically they don’t celebrate ‘turkey day’ aka Thanksgiving,” emails travel blogger Anwar Yafai.

Yes, Black Friday is big all over the world. A pricing consultant firm Simon-Kucher & Partners says that 77 percent of people residing in countries outside the U.S. participate in Black Friday shopping sales, compared with 89 percent of U.S. residents. This data is courtesy of their recent Holiday Shopping Study, which polled 20,500 consumers in 23 countries. There’s a pretty wide range of shopping participation, however, says firm partner Shikha Jain. “For example, Japan may see only about 43 percent participation rate on Black Friday, while Thailand, Brazil [and] U.A.E. expect participation rates closer to the U.S. (around 90 percent),” she says via email.

Some of this lag is because certain areas already have their own big shopping days, Jain explains. “There are some countries like China where the existence of prominent promotional days such as Singles Day will slow the adoption of Black Friday — especially as Singles Day is also in November (Nov. 11). In Japan, special days such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and so on, generate more buzz than Black Friday.”

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Black Friday Origins

The Black Friday phenomenon began in 1924 after the inaugural Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which unofficially set up the day after Thanksgiving as the holiday shopping kick-off. In the 1960s, Philadelphia area police officers noticed masses of people in the streets trolling for holiday gifts or attending the annual Army-Navy football game and negatively dubbed the crowded experience “Black Friday.”

By the 1980s, the day had a different meaning: Black Friday meant a day of big profits for retailers (so they were “in the black” as far as earnings). Then in the 1990s, all hell had broken loose, with people camping out in front of stores overnight to score deals on everything from gaming systems to big-screen TVs to the season’s must-have toys.

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Enthusiasm for the shopping event increased to fever pitch in the early 2000s and sales events crept earlier and earlier until they began mere hours after dinner on Thanksgiving night. But madness and mayhem at the malls (including the death of a Walmart employee who was trampled by a crowd) caused many to start avoiding Black Friday shopping in stores.

At the same time, broadband speed was increasing, so online shopping started to become more popular. In 2005, Cyber Monday (the day after Thanksgiving weekend) was born, and it is now the biggest shopping day of the holiday period. Notably, online sales became especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, with shoppers dropping a whopping $10.8 billion on Cyber Monday in 2020, followed by $10.7 billion on the same day in 2021.

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Why Black Friday Went International

Everyone likes a really good sale. But the true impetus for international Black Friday success has been its shift from an in-store shopping event to one with a huge online presence, says Mackenzie Shand, editor of BlackFriday.com, a site specializing in shopping deals. “With more and more online retailers selling internationally and offering international shipping options, it’s no surprise that it started gaining popularity on a global scale,” she explains via email.

Massive retailers with an international reach, like Walmart and Amazon, are no doubt major catalysts in the Black Friday expansion, thanks to their free or low-cost shipping options. “In the U.K., Black Friday started gaining traction in 2010 (Amazon introduced the day to the U.K. that year), and other countries have had a similar trajectory,” Shand says. Indeed, customers are expected to spend a total of £8.71 billion (U.S.$10.29 billion) in the U.K. over the course of the Black Friday weekend in 2022, which includes Cyber Monday. More than half of this will be online. Back in 2016, Black Friday weekend spending in the U.K. comprised £7.28 billion ($8.6 billion).

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Black Friday’s prominence in society is likely to increase, but international enthusiasm is still a far cry from that found in the U.S. “The number of consumers interested in Black Friday sales is still far greater in the U.S. than in other countries, but the gap is narrowing year-over-year,” explains Calloway Cook, president of Illuminate Labs, in an email. Cook’s company, which makes health supplements, has run Black Friday advertisements outside of the U.S., in places like Australia, Canada, Mexico and the U.K. “We did not find that these ads were as profitable as Black Friday ads served in the U.S. market, so we shut them off and decided to run ads to U.S. consumers exclusively over Black Friday weekend,” he says.

So, while only part of the world will be eating roast turkey on the fourth Thursday in November, it seems like everyone around the globe will be trying to score some deals in the days that follow.

The average American spends $485 on Black Friday, according to the shopping deals website Black Friday Global. No surprise, the U.S. is the country with the highest spending on Black Friday. The runner-up is Canada with an average spending of $430 per person, followed by the U.K. at $397. The country with the lowest spending on Black Friday is India at $69.

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