Black Friday Breakdown

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Black Friday has become as much a part of American culture as Thanksgiving itself, as each year, sometimes before turkey and stuffing are even fully digested, people pack themselves into cars and head out for the doorbuster deals of the season. Lines are long, prices are low, and shoppers are crazier than ever.

Over the last few years, though, Black Friday’s effect has begun to emanate outward, with deals offered weeks and months before the day itself, as well as toward online shopping. Dr. Jane Thomas of Winthrop University lead an exploratory investigation of consumer behavior on Black Friday in 2011, and is one of the foremost experts on this highest of holy shopping days. BTRtoday had a chance to speak with Dr. Thomas about the shifting dynamic of the day and the ways in which shoppers still take to the stores.

BTRtoday (BTR): What were some of the most interesting findings from your 2011 investigation?

Dr. Jane Thomas (JT): What is interesting is that it’s a ritual, it’s a very unique consumption ritual. We found that people do this every year. And not only do they do it every year, with some people as many as 30 year in a row, but we found that there was a set pattern. Like when you have a ritual like a wedding where you do things in a sequence and do things the same way, we found that people did Black Friday that way—everything form planning to executing it. It was almost like a military mission.

Although Black Friday and the importance of Black Friday as a shopping holiday has perhaps waned some in recent years, we find that those loyalists still enjoy the experience. It’s not the deal for some people, it’s the consumption activity, it’s being with other people. Those are the people who are still going to be out there in the crazy hours of the morning and night.

BTR: So how has the Black Friday effect decreased over the past few years?

JT: We now have Cyber Monday, and we have stores now saying ‘our Black Friday prices are now ready,’ and everybody’s trying to do it ahead of the other retailer. So the effect of one day, Friday after Thanksgiving, that is what has lessened and waned, because we now see these extensions of the shopping holiday rather than you have to do it all on this one day.

BTR: Would you say that the consumer fervor surrounding Black Friday is far less significant than it was even a decade ago?

JT: Definitely. Particularly for large retailers, what you can buy in the store you can buy online. So that whole rush of having to be there and be first in line to grab the television or the doll or whatever the hot item is is not as powerful as it once was because there are so many other ways to do it.

Retailers have also gotten smart. Walmart, for instance, has staggered their deals this year. So rather than all of the deals being available at one time, they stagger them throughout the evening and the day. That helps quell the whole rush of people to one thing.

BTR: When retailers started offering these deals on the day after Thanksgiving, do you think their goal was to have people invest in the experience of getting out to the stores, or is that more of a byproduct of how consumers reacted to it?

JT: I think it’s probably more of just a way to generate sales, because what we saw was one or two retailers doing it, and then as retailers always do, they’re going to copy someone else. Honestly, I think the whole experience of people coming in and doing this together really was a byproduct. But what we know happens at Thanksgiving is that you have the meal on Thursday, you have this event. And particularly when you’re away from home—and we found many people were away from home in our study—what do you do after you’ve had the meal and you’re still with the family and it’s yucky weather? Well, you go shopping, because it’s an enclosed mall. It’s something to do, it’s a way to get rid of energy. So it really just kind of evolved into this experience.

BTR: Is the term ‘Black Friday’ overused?

JT: Absolutely. You have car dealers and appliance companies and all these people saying in September and October ‘our Black Friday deals are ready.’ Well, I have to laugh at those things, because if you look at Black Friday, it should be on a Friday, but yet they’re advertising this on a Saturday in October. So the use of the term has become overkill, and when you continually give consumers the same game over and over, they’re going to become bored. They’re going to tune out the message. So we’re going to see changes and shifts in this, as we’re already seeing.

BTR: Does the overuse of Black Friday create the opening for another shopping holiday that might not exist yet?

JT: Amazon experimented with that last year when they did a one-day-only event with sales staggered throughout the day, Prime Day. It was very successful for them, so I think there will be an opportunity for those types of things. So I think we will see something.

What is interesting to me, though, is other countries picking up on this. I spoke with a reporter from Denmark earlier this week, and they’re in their second year of having Black Friday—they do it on the same day, the day after American Thanksgiving. The concept is the same, it’s a sales holiday. We’ve just extended it in the U.S. to what I call a weekend of sales.

BTR: Were there any stories or anecdotes that you came across during your research of Black Friday behavior that were particularly funny or absurd?

JT: First of all, the woman that we interviewed that’s been doing this for 30 years, and they do it the same way every year, and how they bring in different generations. So maybe when you were younger, you couldn’t go, but when you get to a certain age, you get to participate in this almost as a rite of passage in the family.

I thought it was interesting that people planned their journey so much that they actually packed snacks. The lines at the food court are horrendous on that day, so people brought snacks. They actually took little coolers with them and they had their sandwich and their beverages, and they would find some place to sit rather than waiting in line for food and wasting time.

The third one that was interesting was the people who would plan things out completely. Let’s say you have three members of the family shopping—one runs to the back to grab the coveted item that’s on sale. Another family member is standing in line, holding the spot so they can come right in, and the third person is out there with the car, almost like a getaway car, so you can jump in and go to the next place. Very strategic, very calculated, but they wanted to get to the next thing. We call those mission shoppers—the person who’s going to go in, get what the came for, and move on to the next place.

The other thing that was interesting was places like Walmart who will put big tubs out there full of DVDs. They’ll have one dollar barrels and five dollar barrels, and you will find people just digging in them and grabbing items and just putting them in their cart. And when you go up and ask them what they’re grabbing, their response is ‘oh, well, they’re just a dollar. I’ll find someone to give them to.’ There is that urgency when something is a dollar or five dollars—I don’t know who I’m going to give it to, but its a great price, so I’m just going to grab them and buy them.

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