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What Is Black Friday? Everything You Need to Know

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On a frosty winter’s day in 1966, an otherwise ordinary column appeared in The American Philatelist magazine. 

The story was written by Martin L. Apfelbaum, executive vice president of the Earl P.L. Apfelbaum stamp store in Philadelphia. In the column, Apfelbaum described how the local law enforcement had begun using the term “Black Friday” to describe the holiday shopping frenzy that follows the Thanksgiving holiday. 

“‘Black Friday’ is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day,” wrote Apfelbaum. “It is not a term of endearment to them. ‘Black Friday’ officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and overcrowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.”

Apfelbaum may not have known it at the time, but he’d just helped give a name to an American tradition that would continue to this very day — and likely for generations to come. 

As retailers and consumers gear up for yet another holiday season, we wanted to learn more about this time-honored shopping tradition. Read on to learn more about Black Friday, the notorious sales event that marks the symbolic start of the holiday shopping season.  

What is Black Friday?

Officially falling on the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday is a shopping holiday when many retailers run special sales and deep discounts. Often kicking off sales in the wee hours of the morning, stores slash prices on tech, toys and other hot products.

Black Friday may have started as a single Friday in the fourth week of November. But since its inception in the early 20th century, the holiday has expanded to include multiple days and even weeks for many retailers. Thanks to the so-called “Black Friday creep,” some Black Friday sales kick off as early as October and run through the end of Thanksgiving weekend. 

When is Black Friday?

This year, Black Friday “officially” falls on Friday, Nov. 27. However, major retailers like Target and Walmart are running Black Friday deals through the whole month of November. One major difference for  Black Friday 2020 is that, unlike during previous years, many stores — including Walmart, Target and Macy’s — will be closing on Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in November. But while their physical locations will be closed on Turkey Day, these stores will continue to run their sales online.

Black Friday history

There’s a fair bit of controversy about the true origins of Black Friday. What we do know for certain is that the term first began circulating in the 1960s (as we mentioned), when Philadelphia cops started describing the shopping chaos that followed Thanksgiving Day as “Black Friday.” 

As the term caught on, Philadelphia stores even tried — unsuccessfully — to change the name to “Big Friday” in order to make it sound less ominous. The concept of Black Friday slowly but surely began to spread to other United States cities. By the mid-1800s, the term had become nationally recognizable. 

To give the holiday a more positive spin, brands began claiming that Black Friday was so-named for the accounting term “get in the black.” According to promoters, stores were able to “get in the black” and become profitable for the year because of the massive sales volumes seen on Black Friday. It may have started as a marketing ploy, but the story stuck and contributed to the development of the modern Black Friday we know and shop today. 

What are Black Friday ads?

A key part of the Black Friday tradition is its ads. In order to drum up anticipation, retailers release flashy, multipage Black Friday ads both in print and online. Many ads get “leaked” weeks before Black Friday, and can run as many as 100 pages long. 

Ads may vary vastly from retailer to retailer, but typically contain the following information: 

  • Date of sale: Black Friday sales may begin as early as October and run until Christmas.  
  • Time of sale: Many sales start early and run for a certain window of time in order to reward early-bird shoppers. 
  • Store hours: Similarly, stores may open early and/or close late during Black Friday sales. Note that this only matters if you plan on shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, as online retailers can be shopped 24/7 during the span of the sale.  
  • Deals: Black Friday ad scans give shoppers a glimpse of the deals to come. Some deals will be available throughout the sale, but other deals — sometimes referred to as “doorbusters” — are available only for a brief window of time or in very limited supply. It’s important to check the deal details to avoid missing out. 
  • Coupons and coupon codes: Certain deals and discounts may only be unlocked with a coupon or promo code to be entered at checkout. 
  • Online versus in-store availability: With some sales, specific offers may be available only online.  

Black Friday stats

Over recent years, we’ve seen Black Friday sales grow to unprecedented sizes. Here are some of the most interesting data points that we’ve gleaned from recent Black Fridays:

  • Shoppers spent an estimated $7.4 billion online during Black Friday sales in 2019.
  • During the period between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Americans spend an average of $335 per person
  • Almost 190 million shopped during Thanksgiving weekend in 2019.
  • During Thanksgiving weekend 2019, 124 million shopped in stores, while 142.2 million shopped on retailers’ websites.
  • 65% of all online purchases were made through a mobile device during Black Friday 2019. 

Top Black Friday merchants 

Let’s take a closer look at the top stores to shop on Black Friday. During past Black Friday sales, we saw the highest overall discount rates at the following retailers: 


  • Average discount: 43.99% 

The uncontested leader of online shopping, Amazon is the most frequently shopped retailer on Black Friday — despite not necessarily having the largest discounts. Amazon typically runs “Deals of the Day” throughout Black Friday week, in addition to “Lightning Deals” that sell out in hours or minutes. The best Amazon Black Friday deals have historically been on Amazon devices — like Fire Tablets and the Echo Dot — as well as other electronics, toys and fashion. 


  • Average discount: 33% 

Black Friday gets its sales started early and runs all season long at Walmart. Its 2019 sale started the day before Thanksgiving, and its 2020 “Deals for Days” sale is slated to start on Nov. 4, though stores will be closed on Thanksgiving Day 2020. 

Once famous for its in-store Black Friday deals, Walmart has since been focusing its attention on its online sales. On qualifying deals, Walmart is offering contactless pickup and same-day delivery. During past sales, the best Walmart deals have been on electronics, small appliances, exercise equipment and toys.

Best Buy 

  • Average discount: 38.15% 

Best Buy takes Black Friday seriously, often running ads over 100 pages long. In the past, Best Buy has started its sales at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving. However, like Walmart, the electronics retailer plans to remain closed on Thanksgiving 2020. 

To encourage shoppers to make their purchases online, Best Buy offers same- and next-day deliveries, curbside pickup and CVS and UPS pickup options. Best Buy sales tend to begin a little earlier than at other brick-and-mortar stores. The tech retailer’s Black Friday sales tend to focus on HDTVs, in addition to gaming consoles and smart phones. 


  • Average discount: 27.86%

Target has announced that it will run Black Friday prices all month long this year, with new deals being announced weekly. Note that, like the previous retailers, Target stores will be closed on Thanksgiving Day — though deals will be available online.  

This year, Target is focusing its efforts on streamlining its Drive Up services. The retailer’s sales typically center around electronics, toys, video games and clothing. During past Black Fridays, Target has offered gift cards with many of its deals. 

Home Depot 

  • Average discount: 32.08%

Unlike these last few retailers, Home Depot has a history of keeping its stores closed on Thanksgiving — though deals are often available online starting as early as 6 a.m. on Turkey Day. The retailer will offer free shipping on eligible online orders. 

Home Depot’s best Black Friday discounts are typically on power tool sets, in addition to holiday decor and home security tech. The hardware store has also become known for its super cheap poinsettia deals. 


  • Average discount: 52.29%

Historically, Kohl’s has released a 60-plus-page Black Friday ad on Nov. 1. In previous sales, Kohl’s started its Black Friday sale in stores at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving and online sale as early as 12:01 a.m. CT on Monday. This year, the retailer is remaining closed on Thanksgiving, though deals will be available online from Nov. 8 to Dec. 2.

Kohl’s usually does well when it comes to electronic doorbusters — including game consoles and smart home devices. The retailer also has a history of offering discounted purchases with free Kohl’s Cash, which can be redeemed for a specific window during the holiday shopping season. 


  • Average discount: 61.95%  

In the past years, JCPenney has released its 70-plus-page Black Friday ad on  or around Nov. 7. The retailer has launched its online sale as early as Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. Although it has historically opened at 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving, JCPenney has announced it will remain closed on Turkey Day 2020. 

Compared to other retailers, JCPenney tends to be very coupon heavy during Black Friday sales. In the past, the department store rewarded the earliest shoppers with coupons for up to $500 off. This year, JCPenney is expected to switch to a more digital experience by offering the bulk of its deals online.  

Top 10 Black Friday shopping tips for 2020

As professional deal hunters and seasoned shoppers, we’ve seen our fair share of Black Fridays. Based on past experiences as well as recent data, here are some shopping recommendations: 

  1. Make a budget. Amid all the excitement of price drops, doorbusters and new product launches, it can be easy to get swept up and overspend on Black Friday. Before shopping, make a realistic budget and shopping list — and make sure you stick to the plan. Resist the temptation to impulse-buy things that aren’t on your list, no matter how cheap/fancy/high-tech/awesome a product is. 
  2. Skip the stores. You can stay safe and help limit the spread of coronavirus by doing your Black Friday shopping online. But even without the global pandemic, we’d highly recommend skipping the in-store sales anyway. Over the years, retailers have shifted away from in-store sales and started offering their best deals online. Many stores give online shoppers early access to their sales, along with perks like free shipping, curbside pickup and ship-to-store options.
  3. Get a head start. Not only are sales starting earlier, but many of the best deals will be in limited supply. Do your Black Friday shopping as early into the sales as possible to avoid missing out on top products. Top TV brands, in particular, tend to sell out quickly.
  4. Familiarize yourself with store price-matching policies. Many major retailers offer a price-matching guarantee, promising to refund the difference if you encounter a better price in the future. Similarly, stores will often match the prices of their major competitors. Familiarize yourself with store price-matching policies, which may change during Black Friday sales. 
  5. Familiarize yourself with return policies. Similarly, it’s wise to review return policies before making a purchase. Many retailers extend their return window for purchases made during Black Friday sales and over the holidays. 
  6. Shop refurbished. Here’s something shoppers often overlook during Black Friday sales: the opportunity to buy refurbished electronics. Refurbished tech — or pre-owned and open-box devices — can increase your Black Friday savings by as much as 20% to 30%. Refurbished items may include like-new devices that have been returned for some reason, and not always because of a problem. When shopping refurbished Black Friday deals, make sure you stick to trusted retailers like Apple, Best Buy and GameStop, all of which put their refurbished items through a stringent inspection and repair process.
  7. Steer clear of extended warranties. We recommend skipping extended warranties in most cases, but particularly on Black Friday. Because many stores lose or break even on doorbuster deals, retailers tend to push extended warranties harder on Black Friday to make up the difference. An extended warranty (and one that you’re unlikely to use, no less) can undo all of the savings you received on a Black Friday deal.
  8. Know which products to prioritize (and which to avoid). Not all Black Friday deals are created equal, and some product categories tend to see better discounts than others. As a rule of thumb, we recommend focusing your shopping efforts on televisions, tech, video game console bundles, kitchen appliances and home improvement products. On the other hand, you should be cautious when it comes to jewelry and watch deals, which tend to be lackluster during Black Friday sales. Similarly, we recommend waiting until January to buy Christmas decorations to nab the lowest prices and prepare for next year. Same with winter apparel — you’re better off waiting until late winter/early spring if you want to land the best prices. 
  9. Watch out for fake deals and sketchy sites. Online shopping is relatively secure these days, but you should adhere to safe shopping practices nonetheless. Shop only on websites you trust, and stay away from any sites with sketchy designs, typos or deals that seem too good to be true. Be extra careful when clicking through from an email. And never give out personal information requested via email. Sketchy and counterfeit products can also sneak their way onto reputable sites that have large networks of third-party sellers (think Amazon). And the reviews can be deceiving. To spot fake reviews, look for a large number of very brief five-star reviews and other suspicious signs.
  10. Check with At, we have one primary goal: to connect you with the best Black Friday sales and savings opportunities. Our savings specialists scour the web to bring you ad scans, deals and breaking news as soon as they are released. We also publish the latest savings tips and other resources in our blog. We’re constantly updating our collection, so be sure to check back regularly throughout the holiday shopping season.