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How to Avoid Panic Buying on Black Friday

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While much of a America will be pushing back from the dinner table, rubbing a full belly and perhaps settling in for a night of football on Thursday evening, millions of other eaters will skip the pumpkin pie so they can race out to shopping malls. This raises an obvious question: Why?

If you’ve never stood on line at 6 a.m. to score a Black Friday deal, consider this your explanation. Or, if you are a Black Friday warrior, consider this a peek at the opposition’s playbook. Understand the tricks that get you out to the malls and big-box stores right after turkey dinner, and you’ll score even better deals while having more fun.

The National Retail Federation estimates that 140 million Americans will shop during the coming four-day weekend, and 23.5% of them will head to stores on Thursday. Sure, there are bargains to be had: plenty of stores mark down everything from television to ties. And there are plenty of tools to help you find these deals — websites with Black Friday Alerts, apps that help you track deals even as you walk around the mall, and of course, retailers intentionally leak “secret” sales.

But for a moment, let’s presume that for consumers, Black Friday is not really about saving money. After all, the best way to save money is not to go to the mall. And despite the occasional screaming hot “steal of a deal” you may find, many of the prices you’ll see on Black Friday are perfectly ordinary sale prices with big holiday stickers on them. NerdWallet senior analyst Matthew Ong told the L.A. Times this week that 90% of the ads he’s seen so far feature items on sale for exactly the same price as Black Friday 2012; and some deals are the same as recent Veteran’s Day sales.

So intelligent consumers understand that something other than saving money is going on in the minds of shoppers who race through store front doors on Black Friday. At least three things.


All the kids today know that cellphones have made it possible to hear about every single party that’s happening anywhere in the world at any time. That might sound handy, but also has this unexpected consequence: revelers everywhere now constantly wonder if there’s a better party somewhere else. They live under FOMO — Fear of Missing Out. And so it is with Black Friday. Shoppers are far more concerned with missing out on a good deal than they are with actually getting something they need, according to Philip Graves, author of Consumer.Ology, a book about shopping psychology. For them, the pain of loss is greater than the thrill of victory. This is one reason shoppers return items; they get home and realize they didn’t actually want what they’d purchased, but rather they simply couldn’t stand to miss out on an 85% discount. It’s also why buyers often have more fun saying “This was $200 off,” than saying “This cost $200.”

To fight back: Ignore the savings. Focus on what you will really lose — the money you’ll pay — and honestly evaluate if you need the item you are about to buy. Say it out loud, and to your friends: “The price is $200!”  There, it already sounds less appetizing, no? Heading to Black Friday with a specific list, and not straying from that list, will also help.

2. The Allure of Scarcity

This is related to FOMO, but not quite the same thing. Of course, nothing sells like the phrase, “It’s a limited-time offer!” Consumers who worry they will miss out because a store runs out are more likely to act now, think later.  When every second counts, there’s no time to think. Buying without thinking is obviously the road to perdition for any smart consumer.

To fight back: Ask yourself — Is this really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Or will there be more of this item, at this price, next weekend, or next holiday? If so, no need to rush.

3. The Thrill of the Hunt

Consumer analysts who talk to Black Friday shoppers have noticed that many of them arrive in groups, and come with a highly detailed battle plan. They often engage in less-than-polite behavior as they put their attack plans into action. They often have pre-arranged rendezvous, and talk of open communication lines. In short, they employ tactics that sound borrowed from the military. Leisa Reinecke Flynn, professor of marketing and fashion merchandising at the University of Southern Mississippi, even told the Washington Post that Black Friday is “hunting for women.”

“It’s so much like deer hunting it’s hard to tell the two apart,” she said.

Dr. Cara Peters and Dr. Jane Thomas of Winthrop University came to similar conclusions after interviewing shoppers, but with a slightly kinder edge. They say groups who go bargain hunting after Thanksgiving enjoy bonding over their plan, they love the thrill of the race, and they love the “mission accomplished” feel of a successful shopping trip. In other words, it’s a fun day.

To fight back: Well, if you are having fun, no need to fight. I think we can all agree that it’s no fun to push and shove so you can buy the shelf clear of those ugly Christmas sweaters, however. So think humanity first, deals second and you’ll be alright. And beware what some psychologists call “group delusion.” Let’s call it purchasing peer pressure. Just because your four friends are duped into an “85% off” racket, you don’t have to be. Don’t be afraid to say no to salespeople, and to your friends.

Two other words of advice if you plan to brave the stores this weekend: Hold on your receipts. Many retailers are promising price-match guarantees. If holiday shopping doesn’t go well, they may drop prices even lower as Christmas approaches. Keep your receipts and make sure you didn’t go to all that trouble just to overpay.

And remember, just because they call it Black Friday, or Cyber Monday, or “a great deal” doesn’t mean you have to participate. Shoppertrack actually says the best time to shop, weighing all factors, will probably be a weekday next week, when the malls are not as crowded. So give that pumpkin pie another chance before you commit to a shopping expedition.

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