It was in December 1606 when just 144 men set sail from Blackwall, London, carrying with them a charter from the Virginia Company. The first of three ships sent across by the London firm; their goal was simple, to establish and subsequently maintain the company’s presence in the new world. Landing in what is now Virginia, the settlers established what many consider to be the first permanent English settlement on the continent, the garrison of Jamestown.
Within a three-sided fort on the banks of the River James, the settlers were neither adventurers nor explorers but employees first and foremost. For their work, labourers were armed and fed. If they survived a seven-year stint (which was rare), they were to receive land of their own within the new colony, as well as stock in the company that sent them there. However, most would never reap the rewards, with over 80% of the colonists perishing during the first years of settlement due to disease and starvation. It was those who actually bankrolled the projects who took much of the profits and indeed the naming rights for the original towns and states; Thomas West, the 3rd Baron De La Warr, William Pitt and the Duke of York to name a few. The Virginia Company eventually collapsed in 1624 when the monarch at the time, James I, declared the trading outpost as a royal colony, effectively removing any private business interest.
From the sheer abundance of trees and forests found in new colonies such as Virginia and Delaware, it was clear that timber would be the primary leg of the new economy. As most of Britain’s forests had long since been felled, cheap American timber flooded the UK markets, becoming a principal enabler of the Royal Navy’s rise to global maritime dominance.
Since then, a lot of water has flowed under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and although the UK and US maintain a ‘special relationship’, the trade dynamics between the two countries have somewhat changed. The USA still remains by far the largest buyer of our products, purchasing around £100 billion in 2016, more than double that of our next biggest trade partner, Germany. US Imports however, are much less significant, with the UK relying more on the Eurozone for goods flowing into the country, far more than it does from across the pond.
On a cultural basis however, one recent US import has been gathering profound traction domestically, growing into something of a tradition on these shores. Historically, putting the word ‘black’ in front of any day of the week has usually had negative connotations, especially in finance. Black Monday signalled the sell off before the stock market crash of 1929, Black Tuesday. An even bigger market crash was to come during 1987, also named Black Monday. Black Wednesday is often referred to as the day the UK Government forced a battered pound out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.
So how is it that the term ‘Black Friday’ has come to denote joyous commercial excess, heavily discounted prices and big profits for high street retailers? The origins of this consumerist bonanza can be traced back to the day after Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, during the 1960s. Even then the connotations weren’t positive. The local police force would name the day Black Friday due to the heavy traffic and other miseries associated with hordes of shoppers heading out to bag a bargain. Local retailers attempted to give the new tradition a more positive spin, rebranding it, ‘Big Friday’. The term never really caught on, with consumers instead seeing it as the annual turning point for many retailers. The theory goes that retailers usually operate at a financial loss for most of the year, with profits usually generated during the festive period, allowing businesses to enter the black for the first time.
The reputation of the event has been soiled somewhat, not only for its blatant consumerism but also for the actions of frenzied shoppers themselves. Images of stampedes, fights over flat screen TVs, and in the case of the US, gunshots, the instore use of pepper spray from frightened staff and even fatalities show the darker side of the mania that is shopping.
However, this has seemingly not dampened the UK consumer’s enthusiasm for the event, with a predicted £7bn spent across the Black Friday weekend this year, much more than 2017’s £4.5bn. Those keen on a bargain are estimated to spend on average £220, mostly online.
But is the Black Friday furore already peaking? The average shopper planned to spend £304 in the sales last year (a higher figure than this year) showing that perhaps consumers are growing to be a bit savvier when it comes to apparent ‘discounting’. A PwC survey found that around half of us are suffering from discounting fatigue or just not interested in Black Friday at all. More than 75% of UK retailers indicated that they would participate in some form of promotional activity last year but that trend seems to have reached an inflection point, with more stores preferring to invest in year round lower prices. Ironically, once Walmart-owned Asda – one of the original protagonists for Black Friday – stepped away from the event after 2014, commenting that shoppers do not want to be held ‘hostage’ to a single day of sales.
It is with some irony then that those first settlers, in what later became the 13 states, went purely for commercial reasons. It can be seen that in some ways, that spirit of commerce they left with all those centuries ago is now merely being exported back to us here in the UK. As the American novelist, Gertrude Stein, whose high profile works aptly include the novel The Making of Americans, once surmised: “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.”