Elizabeth Stefan’s first “Friendsgiving” was a rather meager affair. Gathered around the table in her Boston University dorm room in 2003, she and her friends served frozen veggies and Two-Buck Chuck, and ate from plastic dishes.
“I went and bought the turkey and didn’t have a clue what I was doing with it," she said. Since then, the event has become an annual ritual with memories attached — like the time she cooked the giblets inside the turkey, necessitating a call to poison control.
Stefan and her friends called it "Faux Thanksgiving." There are other names for such gatherings of friends — rather than family — around Thanksgiving time, but one has stuck in recent years: Friendsgiving.
And now the casual gatherings of the past have caught the attention of marketers, who see an opportunity to sell new outfits, more turkeys, extra decorations for holiday tables. Faux or no, Friendsgiving has real revenue potential.
“Friendsgiving is approaching critical mass for retailers as a potential part of the holiday equation,” said Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with NPD Group.
Friendsgiving is a manifestation of a larger trend in holidays shifting from obligatory family affairs to celebrations with friends, Cohen said.
The Friendsgiving origin story is not as well documented as its Plymouth forebear, but many early celebrations involved potluck meals among friends who couldn’t travel to be with their families for Thanksgiving dinners. Eventually the events began creeping into the weeks leading up to the holiday and proliferating exponentially. “My guests have multiple Friendsgivings to go to each weekend,” said Stefan.
Merriam-Webster first began tracking references to the word a decade ago, though few retailers paid much attention. But the youth market research firm Ypulse, which has been tracking the phenomenon since 2014, has noticed a growing interest. Four years ago, 22 percent of 13-to-32-year-olds surveyed said they planned to celebrate with friends. This year that number has risen to 30 percent.
“We’re still surprised that more brands haven’t made this fun new(ish) holiday a marketing focus,” the firm wrote in its report on the trend last year.
But companies now seem to be embracing the holiday with zeal: Party City sells a selection of turkey-leg antennae for your Friendsgiving meal. Banana Republic and Eloquii urged shoppers to select from their assortment of Friendsgiving-ready attire. Anthropologie, Paperless Post, and Paper Source offer invitations for the event. Local eateries have hopped on the concept: Doretta Taverna and Harpoon Brewery both host festivities with the theme. And Uber Eats, TGIFridays, and Cold Stone Creamery have all promoted themselves as the lazy-man’s choice for Friendsgiving dinner contributions.
Mentions of Friendsgiving in marketing might be seen as an obvious play for younger consumers, but marketers say there is genuine interest among companies in avoiding some of the more fraught trappings of the traditional turkey day, said Lauren Mello, who runs social media campaigns for South End marketing firm Brand Content.
“It’s a more cheeky type of holiday,” she said of Friendsgiving. And it’s also less controversial. "We’ve seen political backlash to brands that celebrate things like Columbus Day and there will likely be some of that again for Thanksgiving. I think that brands are trying to err on the side of caution,” she said.
And perhaps in the spirit of the holiday, it has proved a prime opportunity for cross-promotion. IKEA and Uber partnered on a Friendsgiving delivery promotion last year, while Target and Instacart collaborated on a themed food truck in San Francisco in 2015. This year, the grocery store Aldi linked up with the payment system Venmo on a charitable promotion. Each time a Venmo user makes a transaction using a special Friendsgiving emoji, Aldi will donate 10 meals to the hunger relief organization Feeding America.
Even those companies that aren’t explicitly promoting Friendsgiving are seeing the benefits. Wayfair launched its Thanksgiving sale event a week earlier than usual — in September — and has seen triple digit growth in sales for both indoor and outdoor Thanksgiving decorations. Trader Joe’s began advertising turkeys earlier in response to growing demand. Target has moved its Thanksgiving displays to the front of all its stores for the first time, and offers curated Friendsgiving planning lists for customerson its website.
“There’s many more informal gatherings that are happening that we know our guests are attending,” said Amy Joiner, Target’s spokeswoman. “We’re focused on having those easy entertaining things that can span throughout the season.”
Others companies are just coming around to the idea, such as Roche Bros., where spokeswoman Dena Kowaloff acknowledged Friendsgiving “hadn’t been that much on our radar.” Kowaloff agreed to check sales figures for a reporter and was pleasantly surprised to see a possible Friendsgiving bump:
“We don’t know the reason, we’ve seen a huge increase in frozen turkey purchases this week — like nothing we’ve seen in recent memory,” she said. “It has us all a bit baffled and we don’t know what’s driving the behavior, but we are thankful for the business.”
And it’s even on the radar of turkey farmers. Sue Miner, co-owner of Bob’s Turkey Farm in Lancaster, said she first heard the term when her daughter announced she was hosting a Friendsgiving last year. “I was like ‘What? What’s that?’ ” she recalled.
Bob’s had seen only a small uptick in fresh turkey sales earlier in the season, so Miner is not yet sure about trying a full-on Friendsgiving marketing campaign.
“I haven’t advertised for it, but we’ll see,” she said. “Time will tell.”