Black Friday madness: It's not always about deals
Why do we do it?
Why do so many people stand in line for hours outside major retail stores—often in the bitter cold—to get caught in a stampede of crazed shoppers racing to snag a limited number of doorbuster deals?
Black Friday isn't the biggest shopping day of the year, in terms of revenue generated, but it's certainly one of the most anticipated—and hectic.
I've never done it, but some of my closest friends and colleagues live for this experience each year.
Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, can't believe I sit this one out. He races to the stores with almost no sleep early Friday morning.
"I go for the sport of it," he said. "It's the same reason people play the lottery. You hope to win. In this case, you want to score that superbargain."
Black Friday is changing
Despite all the hype about Black Friday savings, there's a sense among some retail analysts that most people are driven to the stores by the social aspect of shopping this way.
"It's become a cultural phenomenon," said Leon Nicholas, retail consultant with Kantar Retail. "People want to be part of some larger, cultural event. Black Friday has become a holiday, quite frankly."
Nicholas compares it to the people who jump into an ice-cold lake on New Year's Day. It's a bonding ritual, a way to be part of a group.
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"I don't think it has as much to do about getting the deal as saying you were there at 2 a.m. and that you were running around and you got the $98 TV. That's why people take video as they race through the stores and post it on Facebook."
Elaine Kitamura told me she and her brother Darrell will head out to the mall as soon as they finish their Thanksgiving dinner.
"It's a bonding experience," she said. "It's a way to spend time with my brother. I really look forward to it every year."
Pam Lowell and her son Tyler plan to wake up at 3 a.m. Friday and be in line by 4 a.m.
"I don't really care if I get something," she said. "Tyler loves to shop and it gives us something to look forward to doing together. But some people get really nasty when there's a deal they're really after."
Why do so many people take part in this insane shopping ritual?
Ross Steinman, associate professor of psychology at Widener University, studies consumer behavior. He believes there are two types of Black Friday shoppers.
For some, this is tradition, a way to do some shopping and get closer to family or friends. For others, it's a competitive event. Their goal is to score all the doorbuster deals they're after. They're driven by the desire to get something—in this case a superlow price—that's limited to a small group of customers. It's what economists call "scarcity of opportunity."
These hardcore shoppers prepare for their Black Friday shopping trip as if it were a military campaign.
"They take on an almost battlefield approach," Steinman said. "Mom is the commander and the troops go to different parts of the store to fight for the best items."
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Will Black Friday disappear?
Let's be honest. Most people who stand in line for those doorbuster deals never get them. The quantity is simply too limited. And as retailers stretch Black Friday by launching sales earlier and earlier—both online and in stores—they dilute the impact of these sales.
"It's not going to go away. You'll still have people lining up at 3 in the morning," said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee, a retail consulting firm that specializes in customer satisfaction. "But it's starting to fade a bit as a way to get discounts."
Freed wonders what would happen if retailers didn't encourage the "doorbuster craziness" and just offered great sales throughout the day. He thinks it might help their business.
"It would be a little risky for a retailer to try," Freed told me. "It would spread out your traffic during the day and it would ensure that everyone has a pleasant experience because there wouldn't be that pushing and shoving."
For those who are serious about Black Friday deals, here is my Black Friday 2013 Survival Guide.