Even if you're not planning a doorbuster run, there's no escaping Black Friday madness. Stores have been "leaking" deals since October, teasing shoppers with previews, and even trying to lure shopping humbugs with special online deals and flash sales. Though the numbers were down last year, shoppers still spent an estimated $50.9 billion in 2014 during Thanksgiving weekend.
So why do we buy into the Black Friday hype? A consumer scientist and a consumer psychologist shared some insights as to why deals feel so good, why the shoppers who plan ahead tend to be the ones who lose it, and why some people who publicly denounce consumerism might still be the first to elbow you out of the way for a great Black Friday deal.
Deals Feel So Good — and Sticker Shock Actually Hurts
"Any time people shop and they find a great deal, there's that psychological joy of pleasure," says consumer scientist James Mourey, an assistant professor at the Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University in Chicago. Seeing something you like activates the nucleus accumbens, central to the brain's reward center, he says. On the flipside, research has shown that seeing an unfair price actually activates the brain's insula, which processes pain.
When shoppers see a product they like at a price they think is fair, "they get all that super satisfaction in the nucleus accumbens," Mourey says. "And they feel like they're not being screwed over and don't feel that pain in the insula — then they feel really great."
Limited Sale Times and Product Quantities Create a Sense of Urgency — and FOMO
"A major focus of Black Friday is having shoppers focus on a particular, very limited sale opportunity," says Laura Brannon, a social psychologist who researches consumer psychology and a professor in the department of psychological sciences at Kansas State University.
According to the economic scarcity principle, "opportunities are more desirable the more restricted they are," Brannon notes. "Limiting the opportunity to purchase things at a large discount makes people desire the opportunity more." The language used in advertisements — such as "supplies are limited" and "going fast — emphasizes this.
Mourey, who explores consumer behavior in his book Urge, says that the idea that an item is scarce and a deal is limited — even if you know that you might be able to get that same item at a comparable price someplace else at a different time — gets shoppers thinking in an irrational way.
While consumers are wise to the marketing ploys, it's the fear of missing out that still causes them to line up at stores and hover anxiously by their laptops Black Friday weekend. "Even though people might be somewhat annoyed by feeling manipulated, they still think it's a good deal," Brannon says. "They can't stand the idea of maybe missing out on a bargain."
Getting a Doorbuster Deal or Limited Item Can Make You Feel Superior and Validated
In the case of the doorbuster and limited deals, Mourey says, "There's also this tribal competitive aspect to it, where it's like, 'Aha, I got it and you didn't.'"
In fact, the sense of competition actually validates the idea of Black Friday bargain hunting. "Creating a sense of competition, that everyone will be out looking for the best deal, takes advantage of the social proof principle: 'If everyone's doing it, it must be a good idea,'" Brannon says.
Buying Something Justifies the Time Commitment
After you've woken up early, waited in line, created your plan of attack, and have made the mad dash, you have to feel the effort is worth it. Brannon says the "consistency and commitment" principle of persuasion applies here. "Once retailers get shoppers to get up early and wait in long lines, they feel somewhat obligated to buy something to justify all of that effort."
Deal Teasers and Previews Drum Up Anticipation
Retailers have been trying to get people excited about Black Friday since October, with sale "leaks" and previews of the deals. "Getting people to think about a deal with a 'tease' creates a sense of anticipation," says Brannon, adding that the anticipation leads to wanting something even more.
For example, sending shoppers emails and promotions where they have to click to discover how much of a discount they're going to get are part of a more interactive and game-based approach to marketing, Mourey says. "We'll give you a sneak peek of what's going to happen and to whet your appetite, as opposed to just telling you," he says. "If we just told you, it's going to get lost in all the announcements that are out there."
Competition for shoppers' attention is why it seems stores release ads so early. Research has shown that "information that you encounter early on tends to have more of an effect on us than later information," Brannon says.
This also might be why you see smaller retailers' Black Friday ads earlier than the big stores' ads. "The smaller store is trying to get in the game early and be what we call 'top of mind,' so that way, when people are thinking about where they're going to go that day, they're thinking of those smaller stores more so than your big-box retailers," Mourey says.
Black Friday Has Become Part of the Holiday Tradition for Some
Over time, Black Friday has become a social ritual, and some consider shopping with their families an annual tradition, Mourey says. "Part of people's Thanksgiving celebration is they go to bed — or don't — and get in line," he says "What you find is people will take their entire family, or groups of members of their family will go and wait in line, and that's just as much of the experience of the Thanksgiving holiday as sitting down and eating turkey."
The bonding extends even beyond the shopping day. "Much of the social aspect consists of people sharing their experiences and showing their purchases to their friends and families — and comparing who got the best deals," Brannon says.
Online Shopping Appeals to Those Who Don't Like Crowds
"Some people — more competitive and outgoing people — thrive on the in-person shopping experience, whereas others prefer to avoid those crowds and do online shopping," Brannon says.
Last year was record-breaking for online sales, with $1.33 billion spent on Thanksgiving and $2.4 billion on Black Friday. "Now that we have online outlets, those of us, including myself, who would rather just [stay at] home comfortably and have hot chocolate on that Friday or that Thursday night, we can order our gifts in a much simpler way and get deals," Mourey says. "We still get that satisfaction of feeling like we got a good deal without the chaos."
To create experiences that shoppers wouldn't normally have online, retailers have been creating flash sales, with the anticipation and thrill of trying to get a limited item. "In a way, it's the online equivalent of waiting in line and all the hubbub that happens," Mourey says. "It's essentially the virtual version of that sort of excitement."
Planning Ahead for Black Friday Might Actually Make You a Little Crazy
The shoppers you annually see on the news fighting and having epic meltdowns are usually the ones who put in the most planning and effort into Black Friday shopping. There are a few reasons for this, says Mourey, citing the goal-oriented nature of those shopping for specific items or deals. Research has shown that shoppers tend not to notice or be bothered by crowds as much if they're simply browsing and shopping at leisure.
"Alternatively, if we have a mission, like we've got to get this product at this time, then suddenly that store at the same crowdedness level becomes such a burden to us and we're very sensitive to it, and that increases cortisol levels," Mourey says. "It makes us more stressed out. There's something to be said for people who have a mission — they're much more attuned and sensitive to things that get in their way, so that's probably why you see the people who have their list getting angry and acting out."
The shopper who has set goals and waits also might feel more invested in getting the desired deals. "I think that's where you might be seeing more of this violent behavior," Mourey says. "There's the more physical nature of rushing through crowds, but there's also this greater feeling of loss associated with standing in line, running through the store, and not getting the thing that you came there for."
Good Deals Might Even Tempt Black Friday Humbugs
Even those who publicly denounce the consumerism of Black Friday weekend might not be above taking advantage of a few deals. "People often say one thing, yet do another," Mourey says.
If you're asked, "Is family time on Thanksgiving more important than waiting all night to go shopping?" Mourey says, there's a "socially normative" or expected answer. "Everyone or just about everyone would say, 'Of course it is,' but when push comes to shove, a lot of those people who said 'of course it is' will be standing in line that night with their hot chocolate waiting to bust into Best Buy."
It's Fun (for Some)
There are some who truly hate Black Friday and never turn out to shop. But for those who enjoy it, "they're doing it for reasons that they find fun, whether it's the competitive component, the social component, [or] just the excitement," Mourey says. "If you think about it, there's no other time throughout the year where there's that group mentality around shopping. So in that regard, there's a once-a-year kind of experience."
Readers, what do think most motivates people to shop on Black Friday? Do you feel swept up in the seasonal hype? Share your thoughts in the comments below!