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Be Skeptical On Black Friday

by Alison Hudson

November 21, 2012

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Donate "If it's too good to be true," they say, "then it probably is." This applies equally well to promises of free money, claims of miracle cures, and the marketing hype of Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the Christmas Season in the United States.

What's that you say? You've heard that the whole "biggest shopping day" thing is a myth? It was for many years ... until the myth became reality in 2005. Since then, Black Friday has been topping the sales charts for retailers, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. But when you consider that the media had been hyping Black Friday as the "biggest shopping day" for at least a decade prior, one suspects this is at least in part a case of the tail wagging the dog.

Just because it's the day when people spend the most, though, there's no reason to think it's the best day to spend money. In fact, if you're looking out for your pocketbook as well as for your Christmas shopping list, then Black Friday is a good time to be skeptical.

Think that Black Friday is a good day to get the best deals? Think again. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that, after running the numbers of nearly half a decade's worth of data, "the best times to go deal hunting [...] almost never involve standing in the freezing cold all night." Oren Etzioni, a researcher out of the University of Washington, also crunched the numbers; he toldThe New York Times last year that the best deals come not on Black Friday, but in the first weeks of December ... after Black Friday and before the so-called Super Saturday, the last Saturday before Christmas.

This isn't surprising. Stores are in the business of making money. Sure, a few "doorbuster deals" at each store can offer sweet prices on things like budget-level electronics, but never doubt who's really benefiting when you choose to line up at midnight for a $200 TV. As the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article put it, "the industry has managed to [...] turn Black Friday into a marketing bonanza by carefully selecting items for deep discounts while continuing to price broader merchandise at levels that won't kill profits."

And what about the less tangible costs? Waking up super-early, or not going to bed at all; waiting in the cold and the dark; losing hours, days, or even weeks to standing in line. It's up to the individual consumer to decide if those costs are worth it, but I would argue that many shoppers standing in those lines have a less than realistic perception of the savings they're about to enjoy.

So if the numbers don't add up, why the mad rush of bodies to storefronts on Black Friday? The usual reasons: tradition, marketing, and human nature. Richard Feinberg, a Purdue University professor of consumer science and retailing, calls Black Friday evidence of "social normative behavior" -- if we see a bunch of other people doing it, we want to do it too. Retailers know this. It's in the best interests of stores to have lines outside at 4am because lines generate interest, which generates press coverage, which draws more people in, which causes them to spend more money.

Will I be out in the stores this Black Friday? Probably. Like everyone else, I can't resist a few good deals, nor being part of the crowd. But I won't be going after any super-cheap-but-super-limited "doorbusters," and I sure as heck won't be waiting in the cold at midnight just for a sale. There's nothing wrong with hunting for a bargain ... as long as you don't let the hunt overshadow the reality.

by Alison Hudson

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