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A Brief History of Black Friday

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Forget Thanksgiving turkey, fellowship, and football; for a lot of shoppers, Black Friday is the week's truly notable holiday. The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year, but where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points as you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m. on Friday.

How did Black Friday became such a big shopping day?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail behemoth, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially started.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

So retailers were always hoping for an early Thanksgiving?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank.
Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

Brilliant! How did that work out?

thanks-georgiaNot so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.


By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday. [Image credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.]

Why call it Black Friday?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

So where did the whole "get in the black" story originate?

Apparently storeowners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

Do retailers really need Black Friday to turn an annual profit?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

Is Black Friday really the biggest shopping day of the year?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while grabbing for the latest Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top six or seven days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas when procrastinators finally get shopping that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes' data shows the ten-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

But Black Friday tells us how the holiday season will shake out, right?

Again, not necessarily. According to a 2007 Time story, even if Black Friday goes swimmingly for retailers, it doesn't really tell analysts much about how the holiday season will look. The National Retail Federation told the magazine that since the bulk of holiday shopping still occurs in the week leading up to Christmas, those days are far more important for retailers' bottom lines than Black Friday is. That week coupled with the steep discounts most retailers start offering on the day after Christmas end up determining how well the holiday season goes for retailers.

What's the story on Cyber Monday?

It's obviously a bit tough for online retailers to cash in on the retail bonanza that their brick-and-mortar counterparts enjoy on Black Friday; you can't really have a doorbuster sale when you don't have any doors to bust. In 2005, though, Shop.org, the online arm of the National Retail Federation, started promoting the Monday immediately following Black Friday as "Cyber Monday," Black Friday's tech-savvy cousin for online retailers.

So is Cyber Monday the biggest online shopping day of the year?

Like Black Friday, Cyber Monday probably isn't quite the e-commerce boom that you'd expect. According to Snopes, the first few years of Cyber Monday looked a lot like Black Friday. Sales were certainly higher than normal, but the biggest e-commerce days were still usually a couple of weeks before Christmas. Basically, online shopping's big days are governed by the same keep-putting-it-off impulse that shapes traditional retail's best revenue days, only the online jackpots come a little earlier as procrastinators have to allow for shipping time.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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