There are two kinds of people on Black Friday: the ones who stand in line, and the ones who think those other people are wacky. If you’re the latter, you may even spend your Friday morning watching news footage of the mayhem and rolling your eyes. But don’t be so quick to look down on the line-standers of the world.
“The thing about Black Friday that people misunderstand is that people shop for a lot of different reasons,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University and a consultant for exactly the kind of stores people wait in line for. She explains that we tend to assume everyone is just hungry for a bargain, because that’s the common denominator on Black Friday. But in talking to consumers who willingly wait in those lines, she’s found that they’re usually not in it for the sales.
“People shop because that’s what they’ve always done,” she says. “There’s a huge element of tradition. Some people have truly done this every year since they were kids.” Just like the folks who wait outside to get new Nikes or the latest Apple product, no one is forcing them to stand in line at 5 a.m. They want to be there. And for plenty, shopping isn’t so much the end goal as it is a means of getting along with their families.
“A lot of people are put together with people who they wouldn’t normally socialize with,” Yarrow says. “Sometimes going shopping is the only thing that everyone can agree on. It’s something everyone can do.” It’s the same reason that movies are huge on Black Friday. People do the same basic things each year because they’re activities the whole family can get behind. “There’s kind of a family ritual,” she says. “There’s this festive campout spirit of camaraderie that dissolves after the last Xbox is grabbed.”
As for the rest of us? Those who poke fun at the early birds may actually end up in a worse position at the end of the day. Because lots of us will wind up at the mall eventually. The morning crowd is there for the community, for the tradition, and lots of them are enjoying themselves. They’ve come prepared with lists and a game plan, and they’re less likely to be fazed by the crowds. It’s going to be a lot harder for the people who actually just want to be thrifty.
“If you don’t enjoy the vivacity of a mall, you’re definitely more vulnerable to all the sales,” says Yarrow. The stress of the crowds and the BOGO signs and the impending realization that you have no idea what to get your dad for Christmas—it all adds up. Suddenly you’re buying a sweater that you’re not even sure he’ll like because it’s 60 percent off, and it gets your total over $200 (so you get a free scarf with your purchase, which suddenly seems incredibly important).
These deals are designed to hit us where we’re vulnerable. Retailers know that if they throw the word “free” out there, consumers will lap it right up. Buy one get one free, get a free gift, free shipping if you spend this much money. As soon as we see that word we’re in. And people will spend a lot to get something for free. That’s why pretty much every store will offer some kind of free thing on Black Friday, explains Yarrow. It just works. “People will spend another $50 just to get free shipping,” she says. “Or people are buying an extra lipstick they don’t want just to get some gift they don’t really want.”
Which brings us to Yarrow’s biggest tip of all: buy less stuff. She recently got rid of half her holiday shopping list and eliminated all the token gifts for people she hardly talks to anymore. Which isn’t to say that you should give up on those people altogether. It’s just that a present you scrambled to buy isn’t the way to express your affection for that person, says Yarrow. She thinks that people would be relieved not to have to participate in the endless gift-giving game and instead agree to enjoy a glass of wine together. “I’m just so tired, as I think most people are, of thinking about what people could possibly want for a present,” she says. “I want to be inspired the other way around.”
She says a lot of the consumers she interviews feel this way too. They’re inundated with the same cheap stuff at every store,ultimately giving meaningless presents to people who don’t want them.
Yarrow keeps hearing about this feeling, but she also keeps seeing people shopping the same way all over again. “In the moment, people get swept away with the bargains. We all want a momentary relief from the anxieties that we feel, so we get that new something to soothe ourselves.”
Anxiety fuels shopping. It’s easy to self-soothe with a new scarf or a fancy skillet, and with all the pressures of visiting family and big bargains, it’s also easy to succumb to every trick in the retail book.
So here’s our psychologist-approved strategy: go in with a list. Lists, as Yarrow says, are golden. Know what you want to get, and budget in something for yourself. Retailers are smart, and there will be little trinkets and delightful things that take you by surprise. The problem is, if you go in thinking you can’t get anything for yourself—but then end up succumbing—you’ll open the floodgates. Once you bought that bottle of perfume, why shouldn’t you also get those pants? “If you budget in a treat, you get very analytical,” explains Yarrow. Now it becomes when you like those fingerless gloves, but you also like the platform shoes, you have to decide which one you’d prefer.
The key here is that you are in control. You’re at your most vulnerable to overspend when you feel out of control or overwhelmed—as if you can’t withstand the weight of the endless bargains. A list and a plan allow you to feel as if you’re choosing. So take control of your Black Friday. And get some great deals while you’re at it.