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Opinion: Black Friday

It is hard to miss, Black Friday is everywhere. You get a ton of emails in your inbox offering discounts on all kinds of products. In the streets and shops, the big flashy signs promising sales you don't want to miss out on are everywhere. But also #noblackfriday starts popping up more and more on my Facebook and Instagram feed. They are shout-outs from smaller shops and brands explicitly making a stand against the Black Friday Sales craziness.

As a European, spending a lot of time in the United States, I've mixed feelings about that particular Friday after Thanksgiving. Don't get me wrong, I don't like shopping on any other day because of crowds, lines, and lack of patience, so you will definitely not spot me in a store on Black Friday. But I am not declaring war on Black Friday either.

For those of you wondering where Black Friday comes from, it is not some randomly selected Friday in November. It is the day after Thanksgiving. In the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday on the last Thursday of November. Just like Easter is always on a Sunday, Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday. On that day, American families come together to spend a whole day eating and drinking (and watching sports on TV). Traditional dishes for the Thanksgiving meal are roast turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, pumpkin pie... For a lot of American families, Thanksgiving is as important a holiday as Christmas. People travel across the country to spend it with their families and express how thankful they are for what they have. In short, Thanksgiving is a big deal in the United States. But let's get back to Black Friday.

Since Thanksgiving is a holiday in the United States, almost everyone gets a day off on that particular Thursday. Since people generally travel to celebrate it, a lot of companies are also closed on Fridays, making it a long weekend for the average American. (As a native Belgian this is often hard to grasp given this November alone we've already had 2 long weekends, but for Americans long weekends are rather exceptional. A day off is exceptional.) A Friday off after a whole day of eating and drinking, is the perfect time to do some shopping with your family and get the first Christmas gifts. Almost a century ago, the first shops started with offering discounts and trying to lure customers to their shops on the day and weekend after Thanksgiving. The name Black Friday originates from Philadelphia and is a reference to what the streets look like on that day - crowded full of cars and people (just like the Dutch expression: zwart van het volk). From that tradition - like often in the US - they took it to an extreme, resulting in Black Friday craziness - which now even starts on Thanksgiving Thursday in a lot of shops.

So why do shops offer all these discounts on that day? For a lot of big stores, Black Friday is actually extremely important for their books. As contradictory as it may sound, they need to sell stock at a loss or minimal gain to get their numbers back in the black (instead of red, which means losses). Since November is close to the end of the year, it is the perfect time for a last attempt to turn the year profitable. With the economic struggle, classic retail and brick and mortar stores have been going through in the last years, it is not surprising that Black Friday Sale has only become more aggressive and obnoxiously present everywhere you look. For some stores this year, the success of their Black Friday sale can be the difference between bankruptcy or not.

Two years ago, as the owner of a niche footwear brand, I was on the barricade for #noblackfriday, and Small Business Saturday - which is a movement that started to support small business who couldn't afford to give discounts on Black Friday. Now, I've made peace with it, coming to an understanding that some of those big retail stores actually need Black Friday to survive. It is part of their business model, not mine. At least in the US, customers are used to discounts - you get them all-year-round. You can even find high-end designer clothing at 70-80% discount through-out the year at big retail stores like Macy's or Nordstrom. The American retail is king of consumerism, and has conditioned their customers to want something now. If you wait... (it will be on sale two weeks later. I still don't get how people actually still buy things full price in the US, but for some reason most US consumers have a sense of urgency when it comes to their purchases.). In that business model, however, giving more discounts collectively, effectively gets more people in your store. A few days later (after Cyber Monday for discounted online shopping), shops go back to their regular sales offers that they have in their store on any other day of the year.

Over the years, Black Friday has crossed over to other continents, while Thanksgiving stayed in the USA. In Europe, however, the Black Friday story is completely different from an economical perspective. In Belgium, there are even strict regulations on when you can have sales in a store and people are generally conditioned to the idea that they will have to wait until the end of the (fashion) season to get sales. That is: only one month every half year. A day like Black Friday, 1,5 months before the actual sales start - before the holidays - probably feels like hitting the jackpot for the average European consumer looking for a TV, washing machine, or pair of shoes.

Smaller stores feel the pressure of big stores all year round, but even more so on Black Friday. The big stores have a wider variety of goods, add new items on a weekly basis giving customers a reason to stop by regularly, can pay the rent for the retail spots on main street, buy in larger quantities giving more room to give bigger discounts... One would think those stores are in the superior position. But are they really? Haven't they turned their customers into people who value the discount more than what they buy. People who will go to another store the moment that one offers a lower discount. People who buy so much stuff they don't really need, thus creating an irresponsible amount of waste and pollution. People who value quantity over quality, and in the process lost touch of what quality really means - no longer recognizing what a good quality shoe feels like, or what the right fit trousers or coat is for their body type. Or people who don't remember what service really means, where the person who sold you an appliance knows how to fix it, or knows where the item you just bought was made and by whom... Isn't their business model the exact reason more and more of them are suffering and need a big-discount-day to boost their numbers?

At Elegnano we've never even done sales, so definitely no Black Friday Sale. And as the founder and CEO of the company, I can tell you that we'll never do them either. We do sporadic events where nearly new shoes from catwalk shows, photo-shoots, or exhibitions, can be bought at a discount, or a 10% discount to celebrate a special occasion like our birthday or new collection launch. But that's it. Because just like a lot of other high-quality smaller brands, the products we make, don't go out of style, they don't expire, and we don't need to clear our stock every month or season to make room for more because we believe in slow fashion.

I've been in the fashion industry for almost 10 years now, and have closely followed how the industry has been struggling, flourishing, tossing and turning. How it's been trying to reinvent itself and finding a way out of the mess it has created (also literally as the second most polluting industry globally). I am not going to tell people they shouldn't do a great deal on Black Friday at a big chain. I am not going to tell big retail stores it is unfair to the small shops that they offer huge discounts on Black Friday and should stop doing that. But I am going to tell small stores and brands, they shouldn't feel pressured to offer Black Friday sales, because for your business it doesn't make sense to give those discounts. I am going to tell small brands and stores to be thankful for their (smart) customers and the people who've supported their brand and company over the years, because life is more about giving thanks (Thanksgiving) than it is about Black Friday.

Katrien Herdewyn

Founder Elegnano

Edit November 2021: In the last couple of years, the term 'Green Friday' has been popping up. While 'No Black Friday' mostly highlights the impossible economical pressure put on smaller businesses by the big giants through discount prices, 'Green Friday' focuses on the ecological impact of an event like Black Friday. Especially in the United States, people tend to buy things on Black Friday simply because they are at a great discounts, not because they need or even want them - just because the deal is too good to be true. The impact on the environment from this type of consumerism is immense. Green Friday initiatives include free repair services on that Friday, planting a tree or donating to charity with every purchase, sample sales and sale of imperfect items (like we do this year at Elegnano). They are focused on reducing waste, extending the lifetime of the products you own, or overall having a positive impact on the environment.

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