For decades, Black Friday has marked the start of what’s known as the “holiday shopping season,” a time when many retailers make a sizeable chunk of their profits. Some say Black Friday has become its own holiday, but many still choose not to “celebrate.” In the last few years, Black Friday sales have gotten progressively earlier.

Stores began opening their doors at 6:00 a.m. for devoted bargain hunters, some of whom were willing to camp out on the sidewalk the night before in order to grab limited quantities of “doorbusters.” Then a few stores moved to opening at midnight on Thanksgiving day, then 8:00 p.m., until many decided to open in the afternoon on Thanksgiving. I know people who set out right after Thanksgiving dinner and shop all night while the rest of us clean the kitchen and crawl into bed. The question is, are those bargains really worth it? Or do shoppers wind up spending far more money than they would otherwise, encouraged by the buying frenzy around them?

Why People Shop on Black Friday

A survey by the National Retail Federation estimated that over 150 million Americans shopped in stores and online during the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday weekend. (By comparison, only 120 million of us bothered to vote in the most recent presidential election.) The trend has begun to catch on in other parts of the world, and Black Friday is now the biggest shopping day in the United Kingdom. So why is Black Friday so popular?

Some people who decide to join this annual ritual claim to enjoy the social aspect of shopping with friends. Many also report scoring good bargains. Consumer psychologists posit that some of the enthusiasm for holiday sales stems from a re-channeling of primal urges that lack an outlet in the modern world. Shopping, they argue, is akin to hunting and gathering in an age where there’s seemingly not a lot of opportunity for either activity. Further, they contend, we satisfy our innate competitive drives by beating out someone else for the best deal.

Brain chemistry may play a role as well. Experiments using MRI technology have shown that making purchases stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, an effect that’s amplified when we believe we’ve gotten a bargain.

But is that really the case? Presumably retailers are not slashing prices on merchandise so they can lose money in the long run. In fact, many market watchers report that Black Friday prices aren’t necessarily better than other sales throughout the year, and that much of what’s sold at steeper discounts is lower quality or off-brand merchandise.

Marketing Psychology and the Lure of the Deal

Want to opt out of the shopping frenzy? Understanding the psychological tactics that retailers use to get consumers to spend may help you resist these plays and make wiser purchasing decisions based on information, not impulse. Below are some key strategies retailers employ on Black Friday. Armed with this knowledge, you may find yourself approaching this popular day in a whole new way.

Retailer Tactic #1: Manufacturing Scarcity

The ads proclaiming purportedly drastic savings on “doorbuster” items start appearing weeks in advance to generate hype for apparent bargains on electronics, toys, and whatever else is “hot” this year. By limiting the time of the discount and the number of items available, retailers make shoppers think they’re getting a once-in-a-lifetime deal, and many consumers report feeling a thrill of accomplishment at snapping one of these up. Such tactics prey on our aversion to loss and Fear of Missing Out (aka FOMO). When we think we’ve missed out on something, the pain centers of our brain get activated, and pain is a very effective motivator.

Retailer Tactic #2: Deceptive Pricing

Marketing psychologists have spent a great deal of time studying how we respond to different types of offers, whether it’s by pricing things one cent lower than a whole dollar or placing comparable items with different prices alongside one another. It turns out we value things far more highly when we believe they were more expensive to begin with, so when we see that something is 50% we feel the satisfaction of getting a bargain. Of course, the original price may well be artificially inflated, and the “bargain” we believe we’re getting may be no more than a sleight-of-hand.

Retailer Tactic #3: Social Proof

If everyone finds a certain product worth it, they can’t all be wrong, can they? Black Friday operates on a cycle of social proof—if hordes are swarming the stores, what’s there must be worth going after. Perhaps this is why the numbers of people shopping on Black Friday continue to climb. We’re also swayed by social proof when we see other shoppers emerging with certain brands of electronics or bags from clothing stores. There’s a reason those stores spend money on fancy shopping bags emblazoned with their logos.

Retailer Tactic #4: Manipulating Your Senses

Marketing researchers have uncovered numerous ways retailers can lure us into buying, from stimulating our sense of smell with pleasant scents, to playing relaxing music, to using colors that make us more likely to spend. Paco Underhill, an environmental psychologist who studies marketing strategies, notes that the appeal to the senses, which activates our emotions rather than reason, is the retail industry’s most used and most effective tactic.

Just Say No

How should we respond to these tactics? If you want to avoid Black Friday’s consumer mayhem, simply being aware of these attempts to manipulate you may help. When you bring awareness of emotional manipulation to your conscious mind, you can tap into the rational parts of the brain instead. You can also be prepared.

If you intend to take part in Black Friday sales, scrutinize the advance advertising from your local shops. Are the products on offer really worth the hype? Are they quality products that will live up to your expectations? Consulting consumer reports and reviews ahead of time can help you determine whether or not the models on sale will be long-lasting purchases worthy of your hard-earned cash.

Another option is to avoid Black Friday and its appeals to your emotions altogether. In 1992, the madness of Black Friday shopping prompted Canadian Artist Ted Dave to found “Buy Nothing Day,” which is now celebrated worldwide on the day after Thanksgiving with demonstrations against rampant consumerism. Buy Nothing Day in the United Kingdom invites participants to opt out of the “shopocalypse” and #shoplesslivemore. Rather than joining the hordes in the stores, join the opposition to overconsumption by enjoying the rewards of buying nothing instead.

Consumers aren’t the only ones opting out. Outdoor supply retailer REI has decided to sidestep the Black Friday frenzy and make a statement by paying its employees to head outside instead. Their #optoutside campaign urges people to hike, bike, and enjoy nature rather than stand in lines to shop. To follow their lead, look for events in your area or invite others to join you in your own outdoor adventure.

A Real Deal: Gifts That Don’t Cost the Planet

If you’ve previously shopped Black Friday doorbuster sales in an attempt to save money, there’s a better way for you and the planet when it comes to holiday giving:

  • This year, consider meaningful homemade gifts. Whether it’s food preserved from your garden, something you’ve crafted with your own hands, or a certificate for a memorable outing, surely the recipient will treasure the thoughtfulness of your present far more than a flashy gadget bought in a store. Recycled gifts are another, low-cost idea.
  • If you lack the time to make something yourself, consider local or ethically sourced gifts that support your local economy. At this time of year, Christmas craft fairs abound and along with them, the opportunity to support artisans and many worthy causes.
  • Consider opting for green gifts that have less impact on the planet, ensuring that you first understand green product marketing claims so you can make informed decisions.

Your brain on giving? Giving someone a gift you think they’ll really enjoy triggers the release of what Eva Ritmo, M.D. has termed the “Happiness Trifecta,” dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. If you’re looking to boost your mood, this season, says Ritmo, skip the holiday shopping frenzy—which only releases dopamine, the brain chemical linked to addiction—and give a truly memorable gift, which may simply be the gift of your time.

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