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Black Friday and the Psychology of What We Buy

Shopping spree in brown bags with new clothing and electrical items bought in the shops

Do you need these new purchases, or were you lured by marketing campaigns like Black Friday, and clever displays?

24th November has long been called ‘Black Friday’ in the USA as a day for panic-buying Christmas shoppers but, for the last few years, it’s also been embraced by the UK.

You might remember seeing pictures in the papers of people fighting over wide-screen TV sets in British supermarkets, or queuing outside stores in the early hours to ensure they will be first in line for those Black Friday deals. We even have ‘Cyber Monday’, held the following Monday as an internet-only day of shopping deals, to add to the frenzy.

In the run-up to Black Friday, it’s important to look at the psychological drivers behind the things we buy. What makes us pick up that product that we didn’t know we needed until we walked into the shop, or until we clicked on a certain link online? And how can we be sure we truly want to buy it, whether as a Christmas present or at any other time of the year?

Black Friday: The Ultimate Special Offer, or a FOMO Trigger?

We live in a materialistic society: it’s a fact. Every day, we are bombarded with the new face cream that will change our lives, or the upgraded gadget that’s better than the one we currently own. The one-day deals of Black Friday, in particular, trigger FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out) for consumers.

If we feel we’re missing out by not buying, especially if we could theoretically save money with a time-limited special offer, we are putting immense pressure on ourselves to get out our wallets at a certain time, whether or not we can truly afford to spend money.

There’s a lot of social pressure surrounding this: the one-upmanship and the desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ (or, indeed the Kardashians, who will happily buy a new car or house at the drop of a hat).

Children are also susceptible to the lure of new and trendy products, as they try to fit in with their peers, and become champions of ‘pester power’ when you take them shopping. A US-based study by brand building expert Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandchild, found that parents spent 29% more when they shopped with their children – food for thought if you’re on a tight budget, or your house is already full of must-have items.

Shop open sign on retail outlet with goods in background to illustrate sales tactics by retailers including on Black Friday

Sounds, lighting and smells – not to mention the Black Friday discount deals they’re advertising – can all be used by retailers to attract customers.

Psychological Tricks Retailers Use

When you walk into a shop, retailers know how to get your interest. They invest in technology like eye scanners to test where shoppers look. Goods placed just by the entrance, or next to the tills, encourage spontaneous ‘add to basket’ moments.

Music and shopping have been interlinked by psychologists and marketers since the 1970s. More recent studies have shown that low music is better for shoppers, whilst Christmas music in shops can, unsurprisingly, invoke nostalgia. Add some spectacular window displays, in-store experiences and even scents pumped through the space, and you’ve got yourself a captive audience.

But who is the most susceptible to retailers’ tactics? The BBC’s Big Money Test from 2011-2013 found that certain types of emotional behaviour leave you more likely to impulse buy. Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Open University, worked on the survey, and wrote that ‘people who were high on impulsive buying behaviour tended to be people who had poor strategies for managing their emotions and were more sensitive to the highs and lows of positive and negative emotion. In other words, it seems likely that, for many people, impulsive shopping acts as a substitute for more effective ways of managing their emotions.’

The ‘Social Proof’ Concept

‘Social proof’ is big business for retailers: the idea that your friends, family or your fellow shoppers have already bought and loved a particular product, therefore it must be good. What’s more, you don’t have to know the people who have bought a product already. A car salesman might casually mention his sister has the same car you’re considering, and she loves it. An idea has been planted: this car must be a sound investment.

Online retailers are very savvy with social proof, too; think of the alerts on a travel website telling you ten people are looking at the same hotel right now, and that five people have booked it in the last hour. Meanwhile, all kinds of products and services, from books and clothes to plumbing work, carry online consumer reviews. If all those reviews are graded as four or five stars, it’s unsurprising you’ll feel more reassured in choosing a particular option.

When you’re faced with glowing reviews, it’s important to remember we all have individual tastes. What works for one person may not work for you. Your gut instinct is still important, so don’t ignore it.

Sale sign in big red letters with lighting, surrounded by red shoes in a range of styles

That one word to get your attention as you walk past the shop… dare you go in?

How to Think Clearly When Shopping

When you’re being pushed towards a product, stop and think:

  • Do you actually need it – will it make a difference to your life?
  • If you’re buying clothing, how many items in your wardrobe can you wear it with?
  • When the next version of the product is launched, will you still use this one?
  • Is there a cheaper or more sensible alternative – for example, if you’re buying a DVD, could you borrow it from your local library, borrow from a friend, or stream it online instead?
  • If the item is reduced, would you have paid full price for it in theory?
  • Would you have bought it without the brand name attached?
  • Are you buying it to cheer yourself up, as a distraction, or to mask other emotions? If so, is there another way to deal with your feelings, such as reading a book, having a bath, or arranging a therapy session?

Armed with these questions, you should feel better equipped to navigate the shops and make informed decisions, whether on Black Friday or during the rest of the year.

Written by a guest contributor for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).

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