Dr Elle Boag, senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University

November 27th sees the return of yet another US phenomenon which has been adopted by the UK – ‘Black Friday’. The day after Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday of November) when retailers slash their prices of their stock (online and in stores) to kick-start Christmas gift buying.

In 2014, Black Friday led to people in Britain spending £810,000,000 just in online bargains; a figure that is further increased by in store purchases to more than £1billion (Experian, 2014). Yet Black Friday is as synonymous with irrational, impulsive and aggressive shoppers as it is synonymous with the fantastic ‘time limited’ super bargains on offer. Given that most shoppers would ordinarily view themselves as calm and rational and controlled when spending their money, why does Black Friday lead to such antisocial and fanatical behaviours?

Fundamentally, Black Friday uses a limited time framework in selling goods which taps into an intrinsic fear of scarcity which in turn motivates the need to buy and buy. It is this innate fear which in turn drives uncharacteristically competitive behaviour. Being in competition with fellow shoppers for the best bargains, to feel that you have somehow got a better deal than ‘them’ drives behaviour that can be physically and verbally aggressive which functions to alleviate feelings of anxiety and pressure elicited by the competition to win at all costs.

Indeed, the need to win replaces any ability to participate in rational decision-making and items are bought simply because they represent the best deal rather than be a considered purchase. Therefore, what is bought is less important than outdoing another shopper… getting one over on them…winning! However, such spontaneous, over-reactive and untypical behaviour can lead to feelings of regret and shame when the competition is over.

In addition to the role of competition, some consumers may well be extremely aggressive if they view Black Friday as their only opportunity to afford particular high cost items (i.e., electronics) so failing to get them leads to frustration and disappointment. It must be added however, that this is not the same for all people. Some people thrive on the chaotic and intense atmosphere brought about by Black Friday. Indeed, despite Black Friday being competitive, many people view it as “exciting” and are keen to talk about their experiences of “winning” and “losing” bargains at the end of the day. Such examples are not exhaustive, there are any number of reasons for aggressive behaviours on Black Friday, each equally valid and rational as those I provide.

One thing that appears to be consistent in terms of consumer behaviour on Black Friday is the military precision applied to people’s plan of attack. Shoppers strategise how to best achieve their wins by mapping out where the best bargains are situated in the store; they plan routes (and even alternative routes in case of gridlock) in order to give themselves the best possible chance of outsmarting other shoppers. This planning is not limited to inside the store, but also includes when to leave home, when to arrive at the store, where to park, even whether or not to take refreshments. However, it could be that the planning and strategising in themselves actually lead to the irrational and uncharacteristically aggressive behaviours we see occur during Black Friday. Indeed, research has identified that consumer misbehavior such as pushing, verbal abuse and taking goods from another shopper’s trolley, is associated with those who carefully plan their Black Friday ‘expedition’.

So, if you plan to take part in Black Friday be aware that yours and other shoppers’ behaviours are driven not by rational decision making, but by fear of competitive loss or by an adrenaline driven need to ‘have’… and try not to take it personally when you don’t get what you want and just remember… there is always next year!

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