Black Friday should not exist—at least not anymore. Logically speaking, we should have long ago transitioned to a full-on Cyber Weekend. Why wait in line out in the cold, after all, when you can camp out on your couch with a cup of coffee and an open web browser? You'll probably get deals just as good, and you won't risk frostbite and pepper spray.
Contrary to popular belief, most deals on Black Friday are not categorically superior to those found online on Cyber Monday, or really any other day. According to a recent investigation by the International Business Times, there are actually only two categories—clothes and cookware—for which you are likely to find the best deals of the year on Black Friday. That means when it comes to toys, televisions, video games, home improvement supplies, fitness equipment, jewelry—even holiday décor—you’re more likely to find the best deals around Christmas, Father’s Day, Cyber Monday, or the Super Bowl.
In spite of this fact, Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year since 2005—in terms of both sales and traffic. It generates a degree of fervor unmatched by civic and religious holidays, and seems to have become something of a national monument to consumerism.
What is it about Black Friday that so irrationally draws Americans away from their Thanksgiving feast, toward the stress-inducing commotion of crowded shopping centers—all for the promise of just slightly better-than-average deals?
The Psychology of Crowds
"People truly want to get a good deal, and so they might be less rational," said Kenneth Manning, a professor of marketing at Colorado State University, in an interview with LiveScience. "When they can look in the environment and find different cues that make them think they're getting a good deal, the decision-making can be somewhat emotional."
And one of those emotions is simple joy. A recent study by researchers at Claremont University found the receipt of coupons and the prospect of great deals increased shoppers’ oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone associated with romance, social interaction, and bonding.
But the appeal of Black Friday shopping cannot simply be chemical, can it? Surely, there must be a sociological impulse behind the yearly herding of consumers toward commercial beltways and shopping malls.
Two years ago, the Washington Post profiled a number of university professors who went out on Black Friday to study the motivations of shoppers. What they found meshed Manning's emotional response with the inherent celebration of Thanksgiving weekend.
"For the person who's been doing this for decades, this is as much of their Thanksgiving tradition as having turkey," Jane Boyd Thomas, a professor from Winthrop University in South Carolina, told the Post. "That's why they're going to endure lines and probably even thrive in the lines."
You don’t need a PhD to know that crowds tend to exacerbate irrational behavior. This "hive mentality" is often the force behind riots. But research suggests that when individuals see others in a crowd as competitors—as shoppers often do on Black Friday—something strange happens.
According to a report by researchers at Auburn University, when perceived crowding is mediated through perceived shopping competition, it creates positive emotions and may even enhance the enjoyment of crowded shopping.
The Super Bowl of Shopping
To folks who stay home on Black Friday, this probably sounds ludicrous, but there's plenty of precedent. Sports fans have been engaging in the same behavior for years, watching games at crowded stadiums, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, sometimes in the freezing cold, and often with a poor view of the field.
There are plenty who believe that this is unquestionably superior to home viewing. This is the same irrational mentality shared by Black Friday shoppers; what makes it so incomprehensible to outsiders is their own clouded perception of shopping, which they view as a necessary evil to be avoided at all costs. For many—including the millions of Black Friday shoppers—it's just the opposite.
Black Friday is popular, and its popularity feeds on itself in a vicious cycle. The more crowded a shopping center is, the more competitive shoppers are likely to become, and that competition enhances their enjoyment of the experience. Of course, there are always going to be those pepper-spraying sociopaths who ruin it for everyone. But those sorts of incidents, despite the attention given in the media, happen with equal frequency at football games, concerts, protests, and other crowded events.
As a younger event with greater financial stakes and consequently greater media scrutiny, Black Friday is unreasonably held to a higher standard than other mass gatherings. At the end of the day, a large group of people is going to behave like a large group of people—irrationally. The reason for that gathering is irrelevant.
It will be interesting to see how Black Friday continues to evolve. By most measures, traffic and spending have been steadily growing in recent years, with an understandable dip during the recession. But even if Cyber Monday does eventually win out in the sales battle for Thanksgiving Weekend, it will likely take time to draw those large, irrational crowds away from storefronts. After all, the 140 million people expected to hit stores this weekend can’t all be wrong... can they?
[All images: Flickr user "mahat64"]