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The psychological reason you get sucked into Black Friday sales

People shop at a Macy's store during the Black Friday sales event in Washington, November 29, 2019.
Loren Elliott | Reuters

Trying to avoid shopping on Black Friday is a bit like trying to resist eating a slice of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving: both treats come once a year, are designed to entice you and taste absolutely delicious.

The average Black Friday shopper spends $313.29 on sale items, and 69% of that money typically goes toward gifts, according to 2018 statistics from the National Retail Federation. More than half of Black Friday shoppers will buy things online and in brick-and-mortar stores.

Beyond the holiday giving spirit, there are a few deeper psychological reasons why Black Friday is a perfect storm for spending, according to Scott Rick, associate professor at the Michigan Ross School of Business, whose research focuses on the emotional causes and consequences of consumer financial decision-making.

Everyone loves a 'deal'

Consumer research has shown that buying something at a price that's lower than what you're willing to pay, or lower than the standard price, is satisfying, Rick says. "[E]ven if it's something you don't really need, the value of the deal itself is very pleasing," he says.

And people see Black Friday deals as better than they really are because of marketing tactics, Rick says. In reality, sales happen all year round and prices fluctuate over time, he adds. (Not to mention, "Black Friday" sales typically span from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, so you have more time than it might seem.)

FOMO

Then there's the fact that many Black Friday deals are marketed as "limited-time offers," which makes the sales even more thrilling.

Limited-time offers increase "anticipatory regret" — aka "fear of missing out" or FOMO — which drives people to purchase things they otherwise wouldn't, according to research. Consumers tend to give into a limited-time offer because it feels like less of a gamble than trying to find a better deal somewhere else.

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Shopping momentum

There's a phenomenon called "shopping momentum," which occurs when a purchase provides a psychological impulse that encourages you to purchase a second, unrelated product. Shopping leads to more shopping.

It's how stores get you with so called door-buster deals on Black Friday — "a lot of it is just loss leader to bait you inside and get you to buy high-margin stuff," Rick says. Loss leader refers to products that are sold at a discount, or a "loss" to the retailer, to attract new customers. You might shop at a store that you rarely go to to get a great deal on a smart TV, for example, and once you're there, you'll be compelled to buy other items that aren't discounted, like new air buds or a new iPhone. 

It's an escape

After spending Thanksgiving with loved ones, many people shop simply because they're looking for a way to get away from the stress of their families, Rick says.

Then "part of it is kind of boredom and sensation-seeking," he says. The lore and horror stories surrounding Black Friday make the shopping day a real FOMO-inducing experience. "The desire to collect unique experiences and people-watch could be part of it, too," Rick says.

There are however, some shopping strategies that Rick says can help you stay strong in the face of an irresistible sale.

1. Bring a thrifty shopping buddy

When you shop alone, you're more likely to make "silly, super marginal purchases," Rick says. "There are things we do privately that we wouldn't be proud to do in front of someone else," he adds. Shopping with a partner, particularly one who's more of a tightwad than you, adds a layer of reckoning that could help you pump the breaks when considering an impulse purchase.

2. Avoid 'shopping momentum'

Beware of trinkets and small purchases, which seem harmless, but "are meant to ignite your spending," Rick says.

3. Don't take a basket

It makes you buy more things. "Now you're holding a basket, and you wouldn't carry five items on your own, but you'd happily place 10 in a basket," he says.

4. Write a list

Chances are, you're going to stumble upon something that you want to buy. But creating a list of the things you really need to update will help you stay focused in the face of tempting, but frivolous, purchases, Rick says.

5. Make other plans

One of the best ways to overcome impulse shopping is to not shop. Make plans on Black Friday — like visiting friends who are also home for the holidays — to take the option off the table. "Left to your own devices, you're going to be tempted [to shop], so just rule it out somehow," Rick says.

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