The negative images of “Black Friday” are shown every Thanksgiving weekend.
People pushing, arguing, and rushing like mad to grab that last toy on the shelf.
Given that, what makes people get up at the crack of dawn the day after Thanksgiving and head to the shopping mall — some of them with a smile on their face?
“A lot of the reasons most people go shopping on Black Friday — the window shopping, Santa, jingles, togetherness — have been overshadowed by the panicky shoppers out there,” Kit Yarrow, PhD, consumer psychologist and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy,” told Healthline.
Kelly Drovitz of Illinois has been an avid Black Friday shopper since she was a teen.
Drovitz, now 39, agrees with Yarrow.
“For years, I went with my mom and sister, but schedules change, so now I typically meet my sister and hubby out [there]. The experience is the same for all. Fun,” Drovitz told Healthline.
It’s a tradition
Sometimes Black Friday is all about the feelings that arise from participating in the day.
“We know for a lot of behaviors, when it becomes a part of a ritual or tradition it gives its own benefits and is valued in a certain way because perhaps when you were growing up you did this with your parents, so doing it again creates those same special feelings,” Ravi Dhar, director of the Center for Customer Insights at Yale University, told Healthline.
Part of having traditions also means that breaking them may make you feel like you’re missing out, so people are more prone to continue them, Dhar adds.
This plays a part in those who camp out waiting for stores to opens.
“One woman told me that she’s been camping out since she was a little girl and over the years has actually met other people who’ve been camping out as long as her. When you meet people who do this, you’d never guess that standing in line for hours would be their thing,” said Yarrow. “Tradition does that. It encourages an experience to continue with special people. It’s about creating a shared memory with them.”
Everyone can go
As with a lot of family gatherings, Thanksgiving brings together different generations of people.
From young children to teens, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, there’s a wide range in age.
“There is a mix of people that maybe don’t spend a lot of time together ordinarily, and they may have really different interests, so often times families wonder what they can all do together besides, say, see a movie,” Yarrow said.
Many families tell her that shopping makes a great choice.
“Everyone can do it. Grandpa can grab a coffee and a seat while others go look at toys. And there’s something of interest for everyone with window shopping, decorations, and seeing Santa,” she added.
Mood also plays a part, notes Dhar.
“Mood leads you to spend. Maybe you feel in the mood to spend because you’re feeling generous or having a good time with everyone and everyone is happy,” he said.
Shopping on Black Friday or any other time can also help to lift your mood.
Perhaps the holidays make you sad or bring up negative feelings about missed loved ones or bad experiences.
“If you’re in a bad mood, you might shop for retail therapy,” Dhar said.
A way to get in the know
While crowds aren’t for everyone, a lot of people get energized and excited by being around other people.
Think concerts and festivals.
“If you go back to cave drawings, there are images of people meeting in the marketplace. It’s not just about purchasing goods. It’s about people connecting with other people and finding out what’s going on, and seeing things for themselves,” said Yarrow.
Since it’s a human instinct to want to be around other people, she says viewing the marketplace is one way to understand the world.
“If people want to do that after being cooped up eating all day, it does make sense,” Yarrow said.
In fact, some retailers play on this notion.
For instance, earlier this month and on December 2 and 16, Walmart Supercenters around the country are throwing 20,000 parties to attract holiday shoppers.
At the parties, shoppers can check out toy demos, get help from festively dressed “holiday shoppers,” and visit with Santa Claus.
During the events, Walmart will put more items on sale and give out exclusive gifts in its stores.
Desire for deals
For some people, the deals really are the driver.
Dhar says the sales justify the spending.
“If you think about shopping, there’s some amount of guilt or the idea that you don’t need another thing, so you need some kind of justification to buy and deals are a justification,” he said.
For others, deals may make them feel like they’re not getting taken advantage of.
And some people thrive on what Yarrow calls competitive sports shopping.
“They want to be the one to find the deal. I’ll interview someone who will say ‘I got this and it was 30 percent off, and then I had a coupon for another 30 percent off, and then I used my bonus points to get more off,’” Yarrow said.
When they spend all their time describing the reduction rather than the product, Yarrow says they care more about winning the price war than what they actually bought.
While she considers this problematic, Yarrow says this behavior is not unique to Black Friday.
“Most people who are like this on Black Friday are that way all year round. It’s a shopping style,” she said.
But getting deals may also just be a thrill that buyers seek.
So is the case for Drovitz, who uses strategy to add to the thrill.
She downloads the Black Friday application on her phone to get a head start on the sales offered.
Then her husband goes to the closest gas station for coffee early Thanksgiving morning and buys the newspaper.
“That’s the morning the ads are in print via hard copy and we go through them together to see if there are any savings for Christmas gifts and what we need in general. Then we layer up clothing and go,” Drovitz said.
Her husband stays out all night with his friend shopping. Then, Drovitz gets up between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. and meets her sister to shop. Later, the couple connects to do more shopping together.
“You would be surprised how much one can actually save. My personal best Black Friday deal so far is my luggage, purchased in 2010 at a department store. I’ll never forget when the receipt stated that I saved around $400,” Drovitz said. “I’m due for a new larger piece of luggage, so maybe I’ll scope early to find a new one this year. It’s all about the research.”
Are consumers really getting deals?
Yarrow says oftentimes consumers are not getting deals.
In those cases, the bargains and sales allow people to rationalize a purchase they wouldn’t otherwise have made.
“When I look at what people have in their closet, again and again I find things they haven’t used, sometimes with tags on them still, but bought because they were on sale,” she said.
This applies to holiday gifts, too.
Yarrow says people may choose something on sale for somebody because they think it will look extravagant.
“If it was supposed to be 80 dollars and they got it for 35, they’ll think that it will look like they wanted to spend a lot on the person,” she said.
Yarrow says people may end up buying something that isn’t suited for the person, despite their best intentions.
Dhar says deals and sales are a bit more complicated during the holiday season because, like the customer, retailers often don’t know where prices will be.
“On Black Friday, since it’s early in the holiday season, retailers are trying to figure out if they should give a discount now or wait,” said Dhar.
Because of this, some things are not necessarily cheaper than if you bought them a few days before Christmas.
“It all depends on supply and how much inventory they have. Keep in mind that between Thanksgiving and Christmas some retailers might make 30 to 40 percent of their overall sales, so how the first few weeks go will determine whether or not they want to give you a bigger discount or realize they don’t need to give a big discount,” Dhar explained.
Still, fear of losing out on a sale or product because of a sale is what drives some of the “cart rage” and aggressive shopping that occurs around Black Friday.
Dhar explains this as a scarcity mindset that increases stress levels, causing people to have lack of self-control.
Yarrow adds that this stems from primal behavior that causes instincts to overtake rational behavior.
“When we are stressed by crowding and then doubly stressed by the scarcity fears, we can become more aggressive. Just like with road rage, a sense of being unseen or disrespected is usually the impetus to act,” she said.
For the rage to occur, Yarrow says three things have to be present: 1) crowding or a lack of physical space, 2) the perception that there isn’t enough for everyone, and 3) feeling disrespected, perhaps by being pushed or having your physical space invaded.
“When those three things happen, our bodies shift to survival/fight mode (autonomic nervous system arousal), and when that happens we’re not thinking clearly,” she said.