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The Role of Psychology in Black Friday and the Hidden Truth Behind the Deals

CCA LiveE | Thursday November 22nd, 2012 | 1 Comment

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This is part of a series of articles by MBA students at California College of the Arts dMBA program.  Follow along here.

By Christine Yun

As a heavy consumer of retail goods, I’ve had my fair share of shopping year-round, and on Black Friday. From shopping at outdoor outlets, to malls and online during Black Friday, I found myself shopping for two reasons. First, for the deals, and second, to be part of the Black Friday experience. But how much are you really saving? Are these deals really exclusive to Black Friday, and what else is Black Friday about?

I’ve pondered this thought the past few years I’ve gone Black Friday shopping. I started noticing a particular trend among some popular retail stores such as Nine West, H&M, and Walmart. In 2007, Nine West had a “buy one, get one” (or BOGO) sale causing a frenzy of consumers to dig through boxes of shoes, hunting to find the correct size. In 2008, H&M’s get 25 percent off everything sale created massive lines that circled inside the store. Walmart also began advertising their deals days before Black Friday, building upon that chaotic rush of consumerism.

Yet as an avid year round shopper, I noticed the exact same Nine West “Black Friday” sale being advertised year round at certain outlets and even online. H&M will also have periodic coupons available throughout the year offering 25-40 percent off anything in the store. Those deals that seem too good to be true at Walmart can also be found at other stores for a similar price when retail promotions occur. Sites like Amazon sometimes even have the same deals. So how good, really, are these Black Friday deals?

While these alluring sales that occur the day after Thanksgiving attract millions of people to shop, the psychology behind Black Friday can also trigger the need to shop. When professors from South Carolina’s Winthrop University studied and interviewed multiple Black Friday participants, they found a common thread behind the need for Black Friday. They included the social effect and enjoyment that comes with the experience, Black Friday being an after-Thanksgiving tradition and the aspect of loving the hunt for goods.

While shopping can be a solitary activity, Black Friday shopping is often done sociably. The act of being part of the Black Friday experience with your friends or family encourages togetherness, transforming the shopping experience into more of a bonding experience. Even the act of waiting long hours in line can be enjoyable, given whom you spend Black Friday with. In one interview, Tracy, a 16-hour Black Friday shopper, said, “While we’re waiting in line, we usually tell funny stories or help each other get our thoughts together. So it doesn’t really feel like you’re waiting in line forever. It’s about being together.”

Some families have even adopted a “Black Friday” tradition, maybe even to burn off the calories from dinner by going shopping. In other words, many people are simply participating in Black Friday because they have become accustomed to it, and it’s “the thing to do.”

The sense of urgency in scoring a particular product before it sells out has also made Black Friday out to be more of a hunting experience. A similar parallel could be found when Hostess announced they were filing for bankruptcy on November 16, 2012. Immediately, Twinkies came flying off the shelves. Consumers were filled with urgency to grab that last box of Twinkies before it sold out.

So for those that are avid Black Friday shoppers, ask yourself – knowing that these deals can be found year-round, would you still participate? If so, why? There may be a psychological aspect driving your need to shop Black Friday. Regardless, for those that do plan to shop Black Friday, be wary of the deals and also be a responsible shopper.

[Image credit: Steve Rhodes, Flickr cc]

Christine Yun is an MBA in Design Strategy student at California College of the Arts and an avid fashion blogger. You can reach her at cjyun87@gmail.com. 


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  • IWannaGoFast

    I like to go shopping on black friday because i like the crowds and I like to people watch. It amuses me.