Black Friday is special but not because of the bargains

blackfriday2.jpgConsider the madness that will get underway sometime Thursday night to be a communal event - much as watching a midnight screening of "Twilight" or waiting in line to buy the latest iPhone. Frankly, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that you're not getting especially good deals by shopping on Black Friday - that you often end up buying more stuff than you planned and at prices that aren't all that low. NY magazine's Kevin Roose lays out the reasons why it's not such a great bet:

Implied scarcity: This is when a store attempts to drum up interest in an item by claiming "limited quantity" or "maximum two per customer," which makes us think we're getting something valuable when we may not be. It's a staple of deceptive marketing, and at no time in the calendar year is it in wider use than on Black Friday. (There is also actual scarcity on Black Friday -- when stores carry only a 50 or 100 of an advertised doorbuster item -- which also introduces a risk that you'll be 51st or 101th in line and waste your time entirety. Both are bad.)


Irrational escalation: This behavioral quirk is also known as the "sunk cost fallacy," and it means that people are bad at knowing when to give up on unprofitable endeavors. This happens a lot on Black Friday. If you've already made the initial, bad investment of getting up at 2 a.m., driving to the mall, finding parking, and waiting in line for a store to open, you'll be inclined to buy more than you initially came for. (Since, after all, you're already there, and what's another few hundred dollars?)

Maybe the biggest problem is that buying decisions aren't all that rational. In fact, as Roose points out, they make shoppers behave like idiots.

They're choosing between immediate pleasure and immediate pain. That explains why, on Black Friday, retailers pull out every trick in their playbook to minimize the immediate pain of buying: instant rebates, in-house credit cards with one-time sign-up discounts, multi-year layaway plans, and the like. The problem, of course, is that those methods of short-term anesthetization often carry long-term consequences -- like astronomically high interest rates and hidden fees.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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