Black Friday trends, tactics change, but Americans still love bargains
A shopper’s Super Bowl.
A retailer’s dream.
A traffic cop’s nightmare, but nonetheless a part of Americans’ parlance since 1961, when Philadelphia police coined the phrase to describe the chaos spawned by crazed shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.
In 53 years since, Black Friday has become as much a holiday tradition as leftover turkey and pumpkin pie.
But it’s more than just a day of shopping.
Through the years, Black Friday has often been a reflection of what was happening in America: from the dawn of space exploration to the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the 1960s to the technological boom of the 1970s that continues today.
The most sought-after toys — from GI Joes to NFL action figures — offer a road map to our national idols.
The clothing styles — from Nehru jackets to Earth shoes — provide a snapshot of our society’s sense of whimsy.
And the most-wished-for music, once offered on vinyl albums, then eight-track tapes, cassettes and today iTunes — details our nation’s history from Vietnam and Woodstock to Farm-Aid and the Sept. 11 attacks on America.
On Black Friday 1964, kids pressed their noses against the windows at Kaufmann’s department store Downtown, hoping to catch a glimpse of the store’s iconic animated holiday displays before heading inside for a snapshot with Santa.
The children of World War II and Korean War veterans, they lived amid a prosperity that let their parents start careers, build homes and even buy the newest car on the market, the Ford Mustang, which sold for $2,368.
It was a time of great change, said Andy Masich, chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center.
And it was a time of looking up to heroes.
“We see G.I. Joes … these are not your father’s toy soldiers. Your father didn’t have plastic toy figures,” he said.
Still stunned by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Americans worried about an increasing involvement in Vietnam.
They found solace in their TV shows — from “Gilligan’s Island” to “Bewitched” to “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” — which could be viewed on modern, 24-inch black-and-white televisions on sale for just under $270 at Troutman’s department store in Greensburg.
Pittsburgh teens wanted phonographs to play the 45- and 33-rpm records of The Beatles and a 21-year-old Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, who released their debut album ($5.99) that year.
Back then, music was everything, and crazed fans “scooped up anything they could get their hands on,” said former Pittsburgh radio disc jockey Chuck Brinkman.
On Black Friday 1974, the nation’s economy was in turmoil because of a downturn that began in 1973.
In Western Pennsylvania, shoppers were buoyed by their Pittsburgh Steelers, who went on to win their first Super Bowl in January 1975 against the Minnesota Vikings.
Black and gold was everywhere, and Gimbels offered fans hats ($7), gloves ($5), jackets ($20) and even toilet seats ($19.99) bearing the Steelers colors.
“There was a sense that after 40 years of wandering in sport’s wastelands, the Steelers were playoff bound,” said Rob Ruck, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “And that brought a powerful feeling of anticipation and well-being to the region.”
For those with Super Bowl fever, tickets to the game were just $20 versus the $800 to $2,000 for tickets to this year’s game.
That year, youngsters looked for Hasbro’s Sno-Man snow cone machine ($5.99) and Kenner’s Easy-Bake Oven ($14.99) under their Christmas trees.
Back then, technology was taking off, and old-style record players were replaced by portable eight-track tape players ($24.99). For the first time, sales of color televisions surpassed those of black-and-white sets, and Gimbels offered a 25-inch, wood-encased console set for $850 or a 19-inch portable for $560.
Wrapping those presents and sending Christmas cards was relatively inexpensive. W.T. Grant offered a box of cards for 97 cents and a package of wrapping paper for $1.07.
Toys for the youngest kids were simple, perhaps a reflection of the tight dollar.
Favorites were Hasbro’s Inchworm ($14.97), a 3-foot-long green worm that youngsters could ride; and the Spirograph ($3.97), which let kids create intricate designs on paper with colored pencils and gears.
In November 1984, the nation’s economy continued to struggle and Western Pennsylvania reeled from the collapse of its steel industry.
Unemployment in the seven-county Pittsburgh metro area was over 18 percent, said Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of corporate relations at the Allegheny Conference.
“It was a pretty desperate time,” Flanagan said. “It was the birth of the food banks.”
Again, Western Pennsylvanians turned to their sports. This time, a young Canadian named Mario Lemieux came to town, sparking new interest in the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, then drawing about 7,000 fans a game.
And for one season, the United States Football League’s Pittsburgh Maulers played at Three Rivers Stadium.
Technology was the talk of Black Friday.
The MacIntosh Apple computer was introduced earlier in the year, but was considered pricey ($2,400) compared with IBM’s newest personal computer ($1,700) and the less complex, but popular Tandy 1000 MS-DOS personal computer, which Pittsburgh-area Radio Shacks advertised for $1,199.
And the idea of cellphones was just becoming a part of the landscape, but the popular Dyna TAC 8000, with 30 minutes of talk time and a 30-number memory, was out of reach for many at $4,000.
Two sure signs of the times were Virgin Waterbeds’ holiday ads for “waveless” mattresses starting at $99.95 and newspaper ads for Old Crow Bourbon and Marlboro cigarettes.
Prosperity returned in the 1990s, and high-tech took a front seat on Black Friday, when Kaufmann’s advertised a “big-screen” 32-inch Toshiba TV for $1,099 and a Toshiba four-head VCR for $299. At Harry Survis Auto Center, the newest General Electric flip phones were $49.
For that VCR, the most popular movie of the year was “Forrest Gump.”
With the Internet taking off, computers were gaining more popularity as the White House launched its first website and “spamming” became a part of our vocabulary as retailers took a stab at online mass-marketing.
That changed holiday shopping habits, said Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Internet shopping changed Black Friday,” he said. “Market penetration increased, and the deals that were on Black Friday are not so unusual.”
Ten years ago, consumers began their holiday shopping in early November then hit stores in full force on Black Friday.
Retailers who traditionally opened their doors at 6 a.m. began opening at 4 or 5 a.m.
Some shoppers lined up even earlier than that, confounding experts.
“It doesn’t make fiscal sense,” said Paul Friday, chief of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside. “I’m not saying you don’t have 48 cards in the deck; I’m saying they’ve been used a lot.”
Barbie continued to top the wish list for girls, while boys wanted video games or remote-control toys like RoboSapien, a 14-inch humanoid capable of performing 67 preprogrammed actions.
Also on the most-wanted list were video game consoles such as Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation 2 or Nintendo’s DS, a hand-held version with dual screens.
By this year, the concept of Black Friday changed as consumers began Christmas shopping closer to Halloween.
But undeterred retailers, who sparked protests among employees when they opened at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night in 2012, prepared to open at 6 p.m. this year.
“Black Friday is no longer a news story,” said Audrey Guskey, professor of marketing at Duquesne University. “Almost overnight, it has lost its luster.”
“It used to be THE day … but the sales aren’t as spectacular as they used to be,” she said.
But still, the bargains were out there for shoppers willing to hit the stores at 6 p.m. Thursday for deals like 55-inch televisions for $787 and iPad minis for $200.
And for toy buyers, what was old is new again, experts said, as the retro and back-to-basics toy trends identified last year continue.
Toys like Slinky, which debuted in 1946, and games like Risk, which was first sold here in 1959, were making wish lists this Christmas.