Love it or hate it, Black Friday is just around the corner.
Bargains abound, but so do pre-dawn stampedes over flat-screen TVs and discounted handbags.
Merchants have taken the shopping weekend to extremes over the last decade, fighting for a piece of a sometimes-shrinking economic pie by offering bigger, earlier and more sales. The recession may have even hastened the trend, as many shops responded to the sudden downturn in 2008 by slashing prices to move their inventory.
“Retailers always want the consumer to pick them and they’re always in competition, but it became an absolute frenzy. It was for survival,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychology expert and professor emeritus at Golden Gate University. “It taught us to crave and expect the bargain — more than a deal, it became a circus.”
And if the body count is any indication, it’s a Hunger Games-style circus at that. Ninety-eight people have been injured on Black Friday and seven killed since 2006, according to the website BlackFridayDeathCount.com.
“Stress tends to rob us of some of our logic and crowds are stressful,” Yarrow adds.
Hot deals can prompt a scarcity mentality — a fear that everybody else will have something that you don’t — while the massive crowds can lead to aggressive behavior as a means of self-protection.
At the same time, there’s also growing “ambivalence and doubt” tempering the fanfare around Black Friday, says Deborah Fowler, a professor of retail management at Texas Tech University.
“What I’ve seen in the past few years is that retailers weren’t making their numbers, so they kept dropping their prices. You’d buy something on Black Friday and then go back and the prices would be even lower,” she adds.
Not to mention that many outlets are already offering competitive deals both online and in stores, all through the month of November. Even the phase “Black Friday” has lost some of its meaning. Amazon, for example, touted its “Prime Day” in July as having “more deals than Black Friday.”
“It’s become a term that’s almost generic as a trigger for ‘this is a good sale,’” says Jane Thomas, a professor of marketing at Winthrop University. “It’s losing a lot of its punch with that.”
But despite these growing challenges, and even if Black Friday falls short of expectations again this year, millions of people are still expected to hit the linoleum in search of savings. More than 133 million people reportedly shopped over the Thanksgiving weekend last year, according to the National Retail Federation — nearly double the number who turned out to vote in the midterm elections.
What drives these shoppers? Below is our rundown of who’s headed to the mall, and who’s staying home, this Black Friday.
The Traditionalists: These are your nostalgia-filled loyalists. They’re the ones who shopped with mom and grandma every year as a kid after leafing through Thursday’s newspaper fliers. Or the shoppers who make the holiday kickoff their annual gathering with siblings or close friends.
“‘This is what we do every year; it’s part of our ritual,’” Thomas says, describing the traditionalists. “It’s very strategic. ‘We’re on a mission. I’m going to Walmart to get my TV for $199 and then I’m going to go to the next store. But it’s part of the fun.”
The Competitive Sport Shoppers: It’s all about earning the bragging rights for this cohort — and now, of course, about the opportunity to share your tales and treasures on social media. The adrenaline rush and the thrill of the hunt turn on these deal-seekers, as does regaling their mission to any family and friends willing to listen.
These are the folks you’ll most likely want to avoid in the stores, if you value your life and limbs. FOMO level: High.
The Holiday Cheerleaders: This group heads out less for the shopping than for the overall experience — they’re in it for the novelty. Thanksgiving has long been the official marker for the beginning of the Christmas season, and these mall-goers take that milestone seriously. “It kicks off the holiday for them. They’re going to the mall and to see Santa and they’ll go to Starbucks and have an eggnog latte,” says Thomas. Consider sporting a reindeer sweater or jaunty elf hat if you want to win over this crowd.
The Online Deal Hunters: Of course, Internet shopping grows more ubiquitous every year, giving people the chance to seek out the best deals without even having to kick off their fuzzy slippers. Shoppers spent 42 percent of their budgets online last year on Black Friday, according to the NRF. And half of survey respondents said they planned to participate in “Cyber Monday.”
Even those shopping in stores are turning more frequently to their phones to crosscheck prices and scan for deals, experts noted.
The Penny Pinchers: These folks might not have the means to afford full-priced gifts, which has historically forced them to the stores after Thanksgiving. They may also not have the luxury of many days off throughout the holiday season to get their shopping done. So Black Friday is more of a means to an end than anything else.
“For a lot of people, their kid wants something or they need something and it’s the time they can get it. They just have to suffer a little bit to get there,” says Yarrow.
Fortunately, this is the group most likely to benefit as sales stretch out over longer periods of time and move online. There are increasingly alternatives to duking it out with the mob in the middle of the night.
The Avoiders: Maybe they bought their gifts over the summer. Maybe they realize that gifts are inefficient relative to cold, hard cash. Regardless of their reasons, you won’t find these people flocking to the malls at all next week.
They might even be former traditionalists turned off by the modern frenzy — the people who say, “‘I didn’t mind battling the crowd, but I don’t want to throw myself into an animal pit,” says Yarrow.
Competitive sport shoppers take note: That leaves more bargains on the shelves for the rest of you.