Psychology of Black Friday: Motivation behind the pursuit of deals

Planning done, lists itemized, tasks assigned, routes all mapped out and the game plan is ready to go. I am not talking about a military operation; I am talking about one of the most popular retail holidays in the US – Black Friday, a day when seemingly rational people go mad in the pursuit of deals.

Last year,  247 million shoppers visited stores and websites on Black Friday weekend. What makes people camp out of a store in the freezing cold at 2:00 in the morning? Are the deals that incredible? What makes people lose compassion for fellow shoppers and shove, push or even hurt them? Why do we do it?

What drives the need to shop on Black Friday?

Black Friday is not all about bargains and deals. The motivation to shop on Black Friday has deep roots in consumer psychology. The stores know it and take full advantage of the gullible human mind.

Time pressure: Have you ever seen a sale that was not for a “limited time only”? There is a reason for that. Decision-making itself is a complicated process. If I want a smart phone, there are hundreds of choices in the market right now. I usually do a lot of research before making a big purchase, but add an expiry date to a deal and I will most certainly be tempted to make a decision before the sale’s end date, just in case I end up choosing the phone that is on sale — even if that means I will compromise my usual due-diligence process. Time pressure also drives us into buying something we don’t need. What if we need that item in the future? We can’t get it for this good of a price at that time, right?

Scarcity: Scarcity goes hand in hand with time pressure. The “Limited time only” phrase drives us to the store and the “While supplies last” phrase seals the deal. The scarcity principle adds a rare element to a product. If something is rare, we want to get one before it runs out. And to top it off, we don’t like to lose. So if the product does sell out, most likely we will return home with another similar product just so we don’t have to feel like we have lost.

Social proof: I have fallen for this myself. A couple of Thanksgivings ago, I saw a huge line in front of BestBuy. Even though I had no plans to buy anything, I couldn’t stop myself from reaching out for the BestBuy flyer to see what the deal is and make sure I am not missing out. If everyone wants it, it must be good, right?

Competition and ego boost: Everyone likes a good deal. To know that we have purchased the same merchandise for a lot less than what someone else paid boosts our ego. We get a rush when we beat the system to save money.

Ritual: For some people camping out on Black Friday has become a family ritual. I know a family that spends all of Thanksgiving Day planning and scheming what stores to hit. They take great pleasure in doing this as a family and finish their entire Christmas shopping in one day. Each family member gets a certain portion of the list. Even if there are not that many deals, they still do this, well, because it is not Thanksgiving without Black Friday shopping for them.

What is the point in figuring out the motivation?

Black Friday has been engineered to prey on our weaknesses. The marketers know what makes us open our wallets; it would be wise for us to know what makes us tick to avoid overspending and irrational behavior.

If your motivation is time pressure, make a list of items you really want/need well ahead of time. Research the options for each of your items well before you see the sale flyer and note down the non-sale price for each of your options. This will give you a sanity check on whether you are getting a deal. Check out the leaked ads (you can find those in many deal forums) so that you will have some time to think about it. Most of the time you will find out that you can get the product for a good price throughout the year and not just on Black Friday.

If your motivation is scarcity, prepare your mind to go home empty-handed if the product you want is sold out.

If your motivation is social proof, remember that you didn’t save any money if you wouldn’t have bought the item at full price.

If your motivation is competition, you might want to evaluate who you are trying to please. This motivation could very well push you into keeping up with the Joneses and losing a lot more money. No one cares about your money more than you do and you do not have to prove to anyone how well you did. Be honest with yourself. Your future will thank you.

If your motivation is making a ritual out of Black Friday shopping, make a list prior to Thanksgiving Day; enjoy the shopping, make memories, but stick to the list.

Every avid Black Friday shopper should ask themselves what their motivation to shop is. Having a list, a budget to go along with it and sticking to the list will help curb unnecessary spending and regret.

Do you shop on Black Friday? Do you think the deals you get during that time are better than what you can get throughout the year?

6 Responses to “Psychology of Black Friday: Motivation behind the pursuit of deals”

  1. Anonymous

    I agree completely with Meghan, post #2. Expect me at work that week, full 40 hours. Though I will take Thanksgiving off and stay home working 4×10 the other days for my job in hospital administration.

    Expect me to use those vacation days and PTO saved on January 2nd when everyone else is back to work. I love working when the office is quiet and be gone during the business rush!

  2. Anonymous

    I have been going to black friday (in one form or another) since the early 90’s. I remember the days when you would show up at Best Buy at 5am, open at 6am and get what you wanted. Sigh. The biggest thing is to know what you want, be informed on prices, and have the money already saved up to spend. Last year I spent $4k on black friday and cyber monday. I also did not incur any debt (even though I was technically unemployed at the time) and paid off all the credit cards at the end of the month. Why is this? I will give you examples.

    I am a huge music fan. I have over 4000 CDs. I buy all my CDs on black friday or cyber monday. Why? Some stores have huge discounts on CDs that day. Normally a new CD costs 10-15 dollars. On black friday you can find them for 5-7. I create a list and buy 50 or so CDs on one day. I do the same thing for movies (can be found for under $10). I do the same thing for video games (new are $60, can be found for 20). I do the same thing for things that I need around the house. Things like sheets/blankets, furniture, etc. you can find at specific stores.

    The key is to have a list, have the money, believe in delayed gratification, and stay informed on what is being sold, where, when, and for how much throughout the year. If you find a movie, music, game or something that is being sold on sale through the year that is typically what you see on black friday? I get it then and if I loose out on saving a buck or two, I just call it cost of being impatient.

  3. Anonymous

    I’ve made a personal rule never to spend money on black Friday on things that I don’t need. If I need the item then it’s another story – I will buy it. I guess what I am trying to say is I buy things on need not on deals and discounts. Nice post.

  4. Anonymous

    For us black Friday is just like any other day, we only buy things we need and we’ve developed an immunity to these offers and deals. I know people who spend thousands of dollars thinking they’ve got a good deal only to burden themselves with debt and end up with things they only use once a year. Great post, thanks for sharing.

  5. Anonymous

    The old me might have gone out this Black Friday. The new one will probably go to work and save the day off. It’s a good day to work since no one else will. I’ve been really tempted to go to Macy’s so if I haven’t gone by then, maybe I will (but I doubt it).

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