Is a deeply discounted television, laptop or smartphone worth risking your life over? For years, Black Friday has asked American shoppers this very question, and for years, they’ve responded with a resounding, “Give me that Xbox One or I will stab you in the face!” The front lines of Black Friday have become consumer war zones. Getting into a store just as the doors open means you risk getting punched, trampled, stabbed or shot. Lots of unlucky shoppers have left stores in the backs of ambulances. Some even unluckier ones have left in body bags. Black Friday may be the official start of the holiday shopping season, but if you’re not careful, it may also be the official end of your life.
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Not that it was always like this … or at least this bad. The idea that the Friday after Thanksgiving marked the official start to the holiday shopping season has been around since the early 20th century, when department stores like Macy’s started throwing their annual Thanksgiving Day parades to mark the occasion. The day was first called “Black Friday” in a Philadelphia public relations newsletter in 1961, but the concept was slow to catch on. The term didn’t make its national debut until 1975 when it appeared in a New York Times article. Back then, Black Friday wasn’t the gauntlet of mad-eyed shoppers clawing over each other that we think of it as today. While retailers did tend to see an uptick in sales on Black Friday, until recently it wasn’t even the busiest shopping day of the year.
For decades, stores were at their craziest on the Saturday before Christmas, when you’d see a desperate mob of last-minute shoppers picking over whatever bottom-of-the-barrell gifts were still left on the shelves. Then, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, retailers started offering their now-traditional Black Friday sales: one-day discounts so deep people were willing to line up for them a whole day in advance. In 2002, Black Friday officially took over as the busiest shopping day of the year. Four years later, in 2006, the first Black Friday-related injuries were reported: 10 shoppers trampled outside a southern California mall. Two years after that, in 2008, came the first Black Friday-related death: a Walmart worker, also trampled, as a pack of frenzied shoppers smashed open the front doors before the store even opened.
Since then, death, injury and mayhem have become an expected part of the Black Friday tradition, especially at Walmart. It’s hard to imagine that Sam Walton could have ever foreseen it becoming home to more than 50% of all reported Black Friday injuries when he founded his namesake store in 1945, but it’s an honor the company has acquired all the same. Since 2006, Walmart has hosted multiple Black Friday tramplings, shootings, stabbings and drunk driving accidents, along with one pepper spray incident that sent 21 people to the hospital. After Walmart, Kohl’s, Target and Toys”R”Us all share second place in the Black Friday destruction derby, with each store accounting for 7.4% of all Black Friday-related incidents.
Thankfully, Black Friday-related deaths have been far less common, with only six reported fatalities in total. Toys”R”Us holds the #1 spot in the death department after a shooting at a southern California store left two shoppers dead in 2008. But in all actuality, the deadliest place you can be on Black Friday isn’t at any one particular store but in the car on your way home. The most Black Friday-related deaths were the result of car accidents as poorly-rested shoppers were toting home their newly acquired items. Guns, knives and pepper spray are all bad, but it seems like the worst thing you can do to yourself on Black Friday is not get enough sleep the night before.
As stores open earlier and earlier and drop their discounts deeper and deeper, it’s clear that Black Friday is an institution that’s here to stay, and so are all the atrocities that come along with it. Which brings us back to the question, is it all worth it? Well, we’re not here to tell you how badly you need some hard-to-get toy, gadget or game in your life. But if you decide to brave the maddening crowds this Black Friday, maybe try and be a little careful? Avoid the front of the line (it’s where all the tramplings take place), be well-rested (so you don’t crash your car before you can even use all the new stuff in it) and, perhaps most importantly, try to keep everything in perspective. It is only a TV, for god’s sake! (Plus, Cyber Monday starts in a mere 48 hours.) Keep all this in mind and you may very well be able to stay off this year’s Black Friday kill count.