Why Retail Still Rules on Black Friday

Before the tryptophan even kicks in, many Thanksgiving revelers will move on to the next big holiday — Black Friday. While online shopping virtually eliminates the need to hit the mall, many shoppers still head out for a variety of reasons. Why Americans leave their tables, get up at the crack of dawn, and battle the crowds points to something telling about our culture.

Black Friday rules for a number of reasons

a kid presses his face against the glass at Toys R Us

Why do we still love shopping at stores? Just look at this kid’s face. | Andrew Burton/Getty Images

According to The Chicago Tribune, only 10% of retail purchases happen online. This year, The National Retail Federation projects November and December retail sales – not counting car, gas, and restaurant purchases – will increase up to 4% over last year, to as much as $682 billion.

“The thing about Black Friday that people misunderstand is that people shop for a lot of different reasons,” Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University, told Popular Science.

Next: When do most people shop?

Shoppers still hit the mall on Black Friday

a wal-mart employee adjusts a sign ahead of Black Friday

Jesus Gutierrez puts a sign together at a Walmart store as they prepare for Black Friday shoppers. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

CNBC reports nearly 70% of Americans, or 164 million people, plan to shop during Thanksgiving weekend, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation. Black Friday still reigns as the busiest shopping day, with 70% of people planning to hit the stores that day. Cyber Monday takes second, with 48% of people planning to shop online for deals. Some early birds — 20% of consumers, or 32 million people — plan to start shopping as early as Thursday, NRF found.

Next: We like this element of shopping at stores.

Retail stores offer a personalized touch

Best Buy employees do a group cheer before Black Friday

Best Buy employees engage in a group cheer before opening their doors to shoppers. | Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

A study found an overwhelming majority of shoppers still prefer brick-and-mortar stores. “Ninety percent of shoppers surveyed would prefer to buy in a brick-and-mortar store across demographic and age groups,” Mike Moriarty, a partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney, and co-author of the study, told Forbes.

The explanation? “[Shoppers] love going out, shopping with people, and touching stuff,” Moriarty said. “Everybody likes going shopping.” Despite the popularity of online shopping, 94% of total retail sales still stream from brick-and-mortar stores, according to research firm eMarketer.

Next: Some stores sweeten the deal to lure customers.

Shoppers crave the whole experience

a kid in a santa hat draped over a toys r us sign in times square

People wait in line to shop at the Toys “R” Us in Times Square. | Andrew Burton/Getty Images

USA Today reports many stores have created more experiential draws to bring in customers and combat the online shopping market. Walmart hosted the first round of more than 20,000 holiday parties starting in mid-November. It targeted families by handing out catalogs and stickers to kids. Sears also plans to hit online shoppers, by guaranteeing loyalty members who pick up an online purchase in-store a $5 coupon if they have to wait longer than five minutes. Target offers cookies, hot cocoa, toy demonstrations, and a photo op with a chimney made of Lego bricks to turn shopping into an event.

Next: Nothing brings the family together like throwing elbows over X-Boxes.

Black Friday shopping represents a tradition

shoppers carry bags during Black Friday

Customers carry shopping bags at the Newport Mall during Black Friday. | Kena Betancur/Getty Images

The NRF found 35% of consumers call Black Friday a family tradition. “People shop because that’s what they’ve always done,” Yarrow said. “There’s a huge element of tradition. Some people have truly done this every year since they were kids. Sometimes going shopping is the only thing that everyone can agree on. It’s something everyone can do.”

The family ritual also explains why movies do so well that weekend. Humans are creatures of habit. As Yarrow put it, “There’s this festive camp-out spirit of camaraderie that dissolves after the last X-box is grabbed.”

Next: Our primal instincts kick in when we hit the mall.

The thrill of the hunt gets the adrenaline pumping

shoppers run past Black Friday signs

Crowds rush into a Walmart store as the doors open at 5 a.m. | Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, races to the store on adrenaline alone early Black Friday morning. “I go for the sport of it,” he said. “It’s the same reason people play the lottery. You hope to win. In this case, you want to score that super bargain.”

“It’s become a cultural phenomenon,” Leon Nicholas, retail consultant with Kantar Retail, told TODAY. “People want to be part of some larger, cultural event. Black Friday has become a holiday, quite frankly.” It also explains why social media blows up with Black Friday posts. “I don’t think it has as much to do about getting the deal as saying you were there at 2 a.m. and that you were running around and you got the $98 TV,” he added. “That’s why people take video as they race through the stores and post it on Facebook.”

Next: Does mom plan her shopping like a general? She’s not alone.

Some participants take a ‘battlefield approach’

two women with loaded carts and their arms full wait in line during Black Friday

Shoppers Jeri Hull (L) and Karen Brashear (R) wait in line while shopping at Toys “R” Us. | Tom Pennington/Getty Images

TODAY notes that for some, Black Friday shopping runs like a military operation. Dr. Ross Steinman, associate professor of psychology at Widener University, said it becomes a competitive event for many shoppers.

For these people, their goal becomes scoring all the doorbuster deals they can. Those shoppers are driven by the “scarcity of opportunity,” or a limited chance to score the hot item. “They take on an almost battlefield approach,” Steinman said. “Mom is the commander and the troops go to different parts of the store to fight for the best items.”

Next: Why do we buy doorbusters, even if we don’t want them?

Perceived scarcity makes us want it more

people rushing past Black Friday signs

People rush past a shopfront advertising deals. | Rob Stothard/Getty Images

The New York Times reveals those deals find their roots in psychology. Perceptions of scarcity also drive consumers a little zany. According to Bridget Nichols, an associate professor of marketing and sports business at Northern Kentucky University, consumers value scarce products even more.

Nichols found that scarcity sparks “consumer competitive arousal,” the belief that a consumer situation is a competition. The potential for “winners” and “losers” turns shopping into a sport. That gets the heart pumping.

Next: Some play football. Others go shopping.

Black Friday shopping is just plain fun

black friday shoppers in herald square

Customers stream into Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square. | Kena Betancur/Getty Images

A study in The Journal of Global Fashion Marketing found that Black Friday shoppers, not surprisingly, reported great joy in shopping. Those who went out reported feeling more attracted to the “hedonistic” atmosphere than those who opted to stay away from stores and sleep in.

It takes a special kind of person to enjoy Black Friday, just like any sport or competition. Whether you suit up with a stack of coupons at 3 a.m. Friday morning or cozy up to the computer with coffee on Monday, chances are you’ll help boost retail sales this weekend. It’s the American way.

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