Why Black Friday Sales are Here to Stay in the UK

“There’s a new shopping genie.”

“Oh no there isn’t!”

“Oh yes there is!”

The genie in question has emerged with the force of a hurricane, granting shoppers’ wishes (which can be best summed up as giving them an extra excuse to spend money to satisfy their desires and feel good).  It goes by the somewhat curious name of ‘Black Friday’.

This year several retailers have brought US-style Black Friday discounts to the UK.  And shoppers here haven’t let the fact that we don’t have the vaguely meaningful justification of a preceding day, thanking imaginary friends for a good harvest, put us off.  Most of us have either forgotten that food actually is harvested or else have moved beyond attributing meteorological deviations to divine entities.

For the record the name ‘Black Friday’ stems from the traffic chaos that came about in Philadelphia when people rushed to the shops after Thanksgiving.  In the US the transition from focusing on Thanksgiving to Christmas meant the day after Thanksgiving marks the start of Christmas shopping for most people.  Of course, here in the UK, a number of retailers get Christmas associations in shoppers’ minds around September time!

With the ever growing influence of US retailers like Amazon, Apple and Wal-Mart in the UK and the cultural insensitivity for which America is famous, it was perhaps inevitable that Black Friday would appear over here.  When I worked for a US restaurant chain we were told by the (American) chief executive to congregate in the reception area and cheer when the restaurant managers arrived for a visit to the company’s head office (or ‘restaurant support centre’).  Anyone who thinks that a group of British people are going to find this agreeable, either as those doing the cheering or those being cheered, clearly hasn’t spent enough time getting to know us.

All of which explains why the genie appeared, but not why we will be so smitten with it: to explain that we need to consider consumer psychology.

There are four reasons why I believe that this particular genie’s allure is overwhelming for consumers:

  1. The Attention Factor: we spend most of our time not realising that we are filtering out the majority of the world around us.  The marketing around Black Friday’s amazing deals means we pay attention to what the retailers involved have on offer.  This alone significantly increases the chances that we’ll buy something.
  2. The Loss Aversion Switch: life is a balance between taking chances and not dying, at least it was thousands of years ago and our brains have changed little in the intervening period.  Consequently our unconscious mind is sensitive to the risk of feeling bad in the future.  For the most part this is a force to counterbalance consumption: might we regret buying something?  However, a one day sale switches this around: might we feel bad about not buying something and missing out?  Buying feels like the right thing to do, so we do it.
  3. Misattributed Excitement: the way our brains work makes us prone to mistaking our feelings about one thing with something else.  Experiments where people spend more simply because lighting, music or smells have been altered demonstrate this tendency time and time again.  In the case of Black Friday the buzz of the event, the crowds, the amazing deals… create a feeling of excitement.  When we’re looking at the tartan reindeer cushion we can’t disentangle the feeling we get from it and the context we’ve encountered it in.  This becomes apparent after we’ve bought it and got it back home where it no longer thrills us as it once did.
  4. Social Proof: we are social creatures and we constantly reference what everyone around us is up to without even realising we’re being influenced by what we see.  The marketing, the newspaper reports and the crowds of people out and about all reinforce the notion that this is something we should do too.  Ironically, the media stories about desperate shoppers coming to blows can be more likely to make us want to be there next time than to warn us off from future sales.

How can shoppers resist the allure of the Black Friday genie, you might well ask.  The way I see it we have three options.  One approach is to avoid it altogether: recognise that spending £50 on something that is half price is actually you spending £50 that you might very well not have spent otherwise, rather than a genuine saving of money.  By heading to the retailers’ shops and websites on Black Friday you are essentially pitting your ability to make good consumer decisions against their ability to influence you to buy: you are psychologically predisposed to believe, erroneously, that you win this exchange when you don’t.

Another option is to fix a budget and see what you can come away with on the day.  This has the advantage of damage limitation.  The disadvantage is that you may well be influenced to go over budget by some tempting deal you happen across.

The third option is to go with the flow.  We live in a consumer age where we routinely indulge our psychological desires through consumer acquisition; our economy depends on such behaviour.  So, provided that you aren’t getting into a financial mess by indulging, why not enjoy yourself?

One thing is for sure, with the psychological allure of Black Friday as strong as it is, this particular genie won’t be going back in the bottle.

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