Psychology of Black Friday: Tradition, Altruism Drive Pursuit of Deal

Psychology of Black Friday: Tradition, Altruism Drive Pursuit of Deal
Paul Taggart | Bloomberg | Getty Images

For some families, it's not Thanksgiving without grandma's sweet potato pie. For families like Leigh Odom's, it's not Thanksgiving without an after-dinner strategic ops planning session: Shopping lists are itemized, routes are mapped out and a game plan is formed, all with military-like precision. Because after dinner, it's no longer Thanksgiving. It's Black Friday Eve.

To those who spend the Friday following Thanksgiving doing things like spending time with family, or working, or volunteering, or attempting to construct the world's greatest turkey leftover sandwich, Black Friday devotees are a mystery. Yes, an estimated 147 million Americans plan to go shopping sometime this weekend, according the National Retail Federation. But who are these people, what motivates them to rise before dawn in pursuit of a deal — and have they really never heard of online shopping?

"The deals are part of it, but I don't think it's the bigger piece of it," says Jane Thomas, a professor of marketing at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. "This is the family ritual, as much as eating turkey and dressing is — it's going shopping as the start of the holiday season together."

Last year, Thomas and her Winthrop colleague Cara Peters published a study in the International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management that sought to explore those rituals that have sprung up around Black Friday, in order to understand more about this intense subculture and its disciples. Over two years they conducted interviews with 38 "experienced female Black Friday shoppers." (They stuck with women-only because it tends to be the females of the family who handle holiday traditions, including shopping, they explain in the report.)

And they found something kind of surprising: Interviewees repeatedly used military metaphors to describe their Black Friday adventures — the strategic planning, the mission accomplished, and the subsequent bonding with your fellow survivors. This is how seriously these families take it.

In Odom's family, getting up before dawn to search for Black Friday deals, and strategizing the night before, has been a family tradition for 25 years. If we're going to go with the military metaphors, Odom acts as a kind of commander, plotting out entrance and exit routes, and assigning roles (like driving, or waiting in line) and specific zones (electronics, clothing) to the five or so enlisted family members. Everybody knows what's on everybody else's list, so you're not just shopping for yourself; this is a family project. "We're all working toward the common goal, so we all our lists get completed. We can swap money later," Odom says.

Her family's intense approach to the ritual was actually the inspiration for the Winthrop paper — Thomas married into Odom's family, and the two are something like "cousins-in-law."

"It's so much fun. It's time to be crazy and be silly and bond with your family and your friends," says Odom, who's 39 and lives in Kernersville, N.C. For her in particular, it was a way to sneak in some extra family time before heading back to work at a local bank the day after Thanksgiving — they'd be up by about 4 a.m., out the door by around 5 a.m., and done with the whole thing by 8:30 a.m., just in time for her to head off to work. (And, by the way, Odom thinks the study her family helped inspire is "just fantastic.")

All this deal-seeking does often have altruistic underpinnings. Kris-Ann Race remembers scoring a two-for-one deal on a satellite radio one year; another year, she found a similar deal on one of those little flip cameras. Both years, the 35-year-old from Glastonbury, Conn., gave one to her husband, and one to her brother-in-law — she'd have certainly bought them something, anyway, but her Black Friday savvy shopping allowed her to get them something a little nicer than she'd usually be able to afford.

"I feel like I could get them something that they could enjoy more, and not be limited as much by my budget. Same with the kids — we can get them a little bit more than we normally would have," says Race, whose family Black Friday tradition includes her sister, her mom, and a little 11-year-old cousin.

Those little successes can be big ego boosts — another major psychological driver for Black Friday shoppers. "These 'smartshopper' feelings may be strengthened by the feeling that the consumer really put some effort into getting the deal. So getting up at 3 a.m. and standing in line and all that other stuff could enhance my identity as someone who really gets a good deal — that fact that I've had to work at it strengthens that attribution," says Barbara Bickart, an associate professor of marketing at Boston University, whose research focuses on how situational factors influence consumer behavior. Beating the system is always a sweet feeling.

Ads also play into the psychological factors at work here, in part by creating a sense of urgency by using words that suggest scarcity: Limited time only! While supplies last! "All of this creates a feeling of urgency for the consumer and shortens their time-horizon for decision-making, which makes them more likely to buy," says Bickart. "When something's in limited supply, we get nervous about that, and we want to get it. It's like our alligator brain jumps into action: 'You gotta do it!'" (It was this sort of adrenaline rush that likely fueled Odom's "big fleecy sweater" binge a few years back: "I can just remember these big fleecy sweaters on sale for like $10, and I just remember pushing through and grabbing 5 or 6.")

You may have heard that this year, several major retailers are advertising "doorbuster" deals earlier than ever: Kmart, Sears, Toys 'R Us and Wal-Mart will kick off their Black Friday bargains at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, and Target will open at 9 p.m. Here's the remarkable thing: Most of the families we spoke to are choosing to ignore the increasingly-blackened Thursday, choosing instead to continue their ritual of waking up before dawn, even though they no longer have to. At this point, it's just family tradition.

"We talked about it, and we don't like it — we feel like it messes with our plans," says Erin Kelly, who's 31, lives in Berlin, Conn., and is Race's sister and partner in Black Friday crime. (Race wrote about her annoyance under the moniker ProgressiveMom on a blog hosted by childcare center Bright Horizons.) "We set our alarms, we wake up at 4 o' clock in the mornings, and without the rush of that — I feel like it's cheating a little bit. ... It takes away from the fun of it, I feel. What's the big deal about going to a store at 9?"

-Written by Melissa Dahl of