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Black Friday isn’t the busiest shopping day of the year – that’s the Saturday before Christmas, people – but it is the symbolic start of yet another make-or-break holiday shopping season for thousands of American retailers.

And while you’d never know it from the anti-consumer policies coming out of Washington D.C. these days, consumer spending is what drives the American economy – accounting for a whopping 70% of the gross domestic product.

Black Friday is one of consumerism’s biggest days, too, a smorgasbord of sales and special offers that vie for the attention of an increasingly bargain-conscious U.S. buyer.

Crowds were expected to be bigger in malls and shopping stores this year – which early reports suggest – although that doesn’t necessarily mean bigger Black Friday profits.  Nor does a “bad” Black Friday necessarily mean a down holiday shopping season. In fact, an especially strong day-after-Thanksgiving rush could bode poorly for the holiday season as a whole.

Holiday shopping typically accounts for about one-fifth of the retail industry’s annual sales, a critical time for the economy and the jobs those companies support.

Industry analysts aren’t predicting substantial gains from what ended up being an abysmal 2008 shopping season.  Forecasts range from a 2% increase to a 3% decline.

Last year’s holiday shopping season was the worst in a half-century – which played a major role in 2009’s record job losses.

As for the origins of the term Black Friday, no one is really sure exactly where it came from – although its usage has become ubiquitous over the last decade.

Conventional wisdom is that the term gets its name from corporate ledgers, which typically begin turning a profit at this time of the year (i.e. operating “in the black”), although it’s likely that the media just made up the term.

Incidentally, there have been three Black Friday fatalities – all of them occurring last year.  In the most widely-known incident, a Wal Mart employee in Long Island, New York was trampled to death when shoppers smashed down the store’s front doors.  In a Palm Desert, California Toys-R-Us store, two men shot each other to death arguing over a toy.