How Black Friday came to (and got big in) Canada

The line outside of Best Buy in South Portland just before midnight on Thanksgiving. (Photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

We’ve all seen the images of the madness that descends on the Friday after American Thanksgiving – hordes of people, usually hundreds at a time, piling into stores like ants in a mad hunt for discounts on items they may or may not need.

While Black Friday in Canada is not nearly the same chaotic shopping day as it is in the United States, Canadians are increasingly turning to the event for their shopping needs.

According to the Retail Council of Canada’s second annual holiday survey, Black Friday is the top shopping event of the year in Canada, with 43 per cent of Canadians planning on taking advantage of the deals compared to 34 per cent on Boxing Day and 32 per cent on Cyber Monday.

Michael LeBlanc, a senior retail advisor at the Retail Council of Canada, says that Black Friday first picked up steam in Canada about a decade ago, when the Canadian dollar was on par with the U.S. dollar and retailers were seeing customers cross the border to take advantage of deals.

“Retailers saw a risk of losing sales and thought, ‘It seems like Canadians are telling us they want a shopping event before Christmas,’” LeBlanc said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Canada.

“You can’t create these events without an inherent customer demand, interest or unmet need. I think that unmet need was an event that would kick off holiday shopping and allow them gift-giving opportunities.”

In the U.S., the shopping day has been a popular event for decades more. Over the years, Black Friday has become a marketing bonanza for retailers looking to boost sales, and get out of the red and into the black. According to Business Insider, the term “Black Friday” was first used in 1869, when two Wall Street investors drove up the price of gold and subsequently caused the stock market to crash. It was used again in the 1950s by Philadelphia police to refer to the day after Thanksgiving, when massive crowds came to the city forcing police to work long hours.

“It’s not as big as it is in the U.S., but it still is important,” David Soberman, a professor of strategic marketing at the University of Toronto, said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Canada.

“It has created an added incentive for Canadian retailers to offer good deals, because they don’t want that potential business going across the border.”

While Black Friday is still relatively popular among Canadians, one survey found that interest in the event may be waning.

A survey conducted by Accenture, a global consulting firm, found that Canadian interest in Black Friday is on the decline as a highly competitive market prompts retailers to offer deals to consumers throughout the year, as opposed to just on marquee holidays. Approximately four in 10 shoppers said they plan on shopping on Black Friday, compared to six in 10 in 2018.

“Over the last few years we’ve seen compelling discounts throughout the course of the year that are effectively reducing the significance of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Boxing Day,” said Robin Sahota, Accenture’s managing director of retail in Canada.

So are there real deals to be had, or is Black Friday just a giant marketing ploy for retailers?

Both, say retail experts.

“The cost of Black Friday is that you have to go to the store, wait in long lineups, and there’s a chance that they may run out of the thing you want because there is so much activity at the store level,” Soberman says.

Sahota says a highly competitive market has also forced retailers to roll out discounts and deals for shoppers.

“There are still good deals to be had, but you may have to go out there and search, hunt and plan. I think that’s what Canadians are doing,” Sahota said.

“Retailers are realizing that these days are not insignificant and they’re accordingly trying to differentiate themselves with more compelling promotions or experiences or unique offers that you can only get during this period of time.”

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