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The Consumer Psychology Behind Black Friday

Updated: Apr 1

Black Friday is a tradition for Lisa and her sisters. While many stores begin sales on Thanksgiving, these women wait until the wee hours of Friday morning, willing to brave any large crowd.

Most of Lisa’s stories of the sisters’ shopping adventures are amusing, but not all Black Friday tales are. People magazine ran an article with stories from retail workers about the horrors they experienced with Black Friday shoppers.

Changes have occurred in recent years, even before COVID-19 altered our shopping habits. Stores release sales earlier and earlier, making Black Friday less of the limited-time rush that it was in the past. Shopping online for Cyber Monday is also popular.

With the crowds, long lines, uncertainty about product quantities, and earlier sales, it does beg the question: Why does Black Friday still draw so many shoppers?

While scarcity is the obvious principle at play when it comes to emotional decision making, there’s more to the appeal of Black Friday.

Black Friday is notorious for “aggressive” shopping and crowded stores. We research deals, map out which stores to hit, and decide what products to snap up. We don’t want to miss out on temporary price discounts, so we wait in long lines and battle other shoppers.

Our preference for scarce products is often driven by our fear of loss. We have a greater fear of what we might lose than what we might gain. Loss aversion is especially strong when we think we are competing with other consumers. We start to feel an urgency to get the scarce item and participate in emotional spending. Commodity theory also plays a role here.

Our anticipation of regretting a missed opportunity is why we shop during Black Friday—and is generally why we make an impulse purchase. FOMO (fear of missing out) is deep within our subconscious and drives our decisions.

Businesses that are effective at capitalizing on FOMO understand that they have to correctly frame the purchase scenario.

You can see this framing in Black Friday ads. Target might show the discounted prices during 6 AM and 11 AM instead of regular prices. Target’s framing leads to creating a sense of urgency; buyers worry that if they don’t shop during the sale, they’ll miss out.

Black Friday also causes time pressure, which causes us to skip the normal steps involved in making a purchase decision. We stop looking for additional information to help us decide whether to buy something; we are compelled to buy right then.

Time pressure is great for businesses. As a consumer, not only did you accelerate your purchase—you had limited exposure to competing products and deals.

Despite these concepts, there are still other Black Friday psychology principles at play. Let’s look at them.

Black Friday Causes Feelings of Excitement

Black Friday has been described as the shopping equivalent of the Super Bowl. It’s not the game itself that matters, but being part of the action. Commercials, social media ads, and news reports start building hype way before the event. It’s exciting!

Excitement is an emotion that affects the whole body as a condition of physiological arousal. It starts in parts of your brain but moves to the rest of your body. That is why hearts race and we feel butterflies.

Some people have a stronger need for excitement than others. A book titled, Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement, written by Michael Aptor dives into this concept.

This book explores why people do dangerous things. For instance, why do people jump out of airplanes? According to Aptor, it’s because of a need for excitement.

When we are in an excitement-seeking state, we develop a "protective frame" and believe we are safe. This could be one reason we overlook the threats of big crowds and aggressive shoppers on Black Friday—we are focused on the excitement.

Excitement can also be driven by consumer competition. Research by a professor at Northern Kentucky University included a fantastic definition of consumer competition: “the active process of striving against others for the acquisition of a consumption object of mutual interest.” Competition plays an essential role during Black Friday; consumers are less likely to be rational when competing.

You may have heard about the two women who got into a fight over 2T jeans at Children’s Place on a Black Friday. This supports the idea that we become less rational due to consumer competition.

A Big Shopping Event Speaks to Hunting and Gathering Instincts

Consumer psychology research shows that we approach shopping situations in ways consistent with the hunting and gathering behaviors of our ancestors. The difference is that we hunt and gather deals; this also causes us to hoard resources.

When it comes to the psychology of Black Friday sales, we respond to the situation by hoarding. Similar to a predator on the hunt, Black Friday shoppers focus on tracking down and pouncing on something of perceived value—the sale item.

Perceived value is associated with our survival instinct. If something appears valuable, we want to get and keep it, whether it is a doorbuster deal on TV or a temporarily discounted diamond ring. However, it’s not just the value of the item that speaks to our instincts; it’s what we had to go through to get it.

The more we suffer to get an item, the more valuable we perceive it to be. This perception is heightened when we see other shoppers suffering in pursuit of the product.

Sounds like Black Friday to me.

We see people camping outside of stores. Shoppers forgoing turkey dinner to brave the crowds. People driving miles to the stores with the best deals.

When it comes to hunting and gathering, one study found differences among shoppers based on their sex. Men scored higher on behaviors linked to hunting: “even though the prey is now an expensive home theatre system, men are still applying the skills that were developed to obtain meat in a hunter-gatherer environment.”

Women scored higher on behaviors associated with gathering. For instance, they were more drawn to the atmosphere and overall experience of gathering.

We Crave Traditions That Build Social Relationships

I read once that traditions act as a compass for all of our human relationships and personal interactions.

I love that.

Traditions bring stability and predictability. One study by Northwestern found that we love predictability so much that about 93 percent of all our actions can be predicted ahead of time.

For traditions to actually become traditions, there are a few things that need to exist:

  • A strictly defined time and place.

  • A set of features that are repeated year after year.

  • Another set of features that are different from year to year.

  • A lot of symbols.

There also needs to be a large amount of sensory information, such as sights, sounds and smells.

Again, this all sure sounds like Black Friday.

We think of turkey and our minds go to Thanksgiving.

Painted eggs? Easter.

Colorful candles on a cake? Birthdays.

Long lines and tents outside a store? Black Friday sales.

These are our traditions.


You can build excitement on any shopping day now that you understand Black Friday psychology.

Create a challenge, contest, or reward program that pairs excitement with competition and taps into natural reward systems related to emotional shopping.

My local gym runs a challenge: If you attend 30 classes during a 60-day time window, your name is put on a big board for everyone to see and you’re invited to an exclusive party. Talk about motivation! It also shows progress, which leads to excitement.

How do we reach hunters and gatherers?

Hunters want to find products quickly and efficiently. Marking items as top-rated or most popular will appeal to them. Offering guides to help with purchases will also be appealing.

For gatherers, encourage browsing—especially if you have a retail business. Think about the atmosphere and overall experience. Consider the sounds, layout, smells, and lighting to attract gatherers.

Create traditions for your customers through special events. Nordstrom does this with their semi-annual Trend Show, a runway-type event where multiple cosmetic companies present the latest makeup or beauty trends. The event has become a twice-a-year tradition for hundreds of customers.

When you understand the psychology of emotional spending, which explains why people still go shopping on Black Friday, you are better equipped to plan your own great deal for the holidays and beyond.


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