Shoppers behaving badly?

December 28, 2014 by Martha’s Dad

black-friday-deals-4652143Several people have asked me recently about the scenes we witnessed on TV on Black Friday, that seemingly insane annual event now where quite ordinary people behave in rather extraordinary ways as retailers entice them in for a day/weekend with heavily discounted goods.

The news coverage this year was particularly graphic and disturbing, I thought, with the now ubiquitous smartphone home videos enabling broadcasters to get closer than every before to the mayhem unfolding in our malls and on our high streets. People have interesting takes on all this, too.  A number of people here in the UK (and I’ve heard similar views expressed on TV) seem to regard this as a particularly unwelcome American import that we didn’t have until very recently.  Everyone, it seems, is aware that Black Friday is a US sales tradition, occurring a week after Thanksgiving.

Although there may be a grain of truth in this viewpoint in terms of current timing of these mad retail events, it’s of course not a new phenomenon at all.  I can remember vividly scenes on the BBC way back in the 70s as our very own “January Sales” began each year, and then later this of course mutated into the “Boxing Day” sales as trading laws relaxed.  Very similar events, very familiar scenes of “bargain-mad” shoppers running amok, it’s just the scheduling that has varied over time.  Maybe if Black Friday is more pronounced (and I’m not convinced it is), it’s simply the fact that it occurs before Christmas that amplifies the effects – who can resist getting that desired gift just a little bit cheaper?

The psychology of all of this is interesting, but equally complex.  Different researchers have different views on this and there is no one single explanation we’d all subscribe to.  My own particular take on this is that it’s a very ancient behaviour manifesting itself in the modern world.  Competition for access to resources is an old Darwinian idea and this competition often leads to conflict and the breakdown in social rules.  Nothing new in this at all, it’s only the arenas in which conflict is enacted and the behavioural triggers involved that have shifted over time.

The triggers themselves are also fascinating.  What we see on Black Friday is a classic demonstration of the power of the group situation over individual behaviour, (in-)famously demonstrated over 40 years ago by Zimbardo and his colleagues in the Stanford Prison Experiment.  Black Friday is a carefully constructed event in which numerous situational variables come into play.  It’s a time delimited even, for instance, designed to infuse shoppers with a sense of urgency.  Sales typically start just after midnight or at the crack-of-dawn, so sleep deprivation and maybe also hunger amplify the increased emotional arousal levels even further, impairing judgment.  And as disorder ensues in already-crowded stores, the herd mentality is coupled with a deep-rooted fight-or-flight response and the mall descends into chaos as everyone subconsciously “agrees” to ignore normal social rules.  I could go on…the number of situational variables at play here is vast.

A key point for me, though, is that this isn’t just an accident.  It’s not just a case of a lot of shoppers getting together in pursuit of a bargain and “behaving badly”.  Intentionally or otherwise, they are being encouraged to behave that way by a particular set of marketing stimuli beautifully crafted by the canny retailer.  It is the retailer who sets the time limits on so-called “bargains” (I wonder how many goods are actually discounted across the store, rather than just one or two headline items), deploys massive advertising spends to heighten awareness/anticipation, and creates a retail environment deliberately designed to stimulate heightened impulse buying.

Retailers need to take responsibility for the behaviours we witness each year on TV, too.  An interesting paper by Sharron Lennon and her colleagues makes this point very well, I think, calling for a more “socially responsible” approach to be adopted in managing future Black Friday events.  Yes, the behaviour is largely a product of the situation…but it’s a situation crafted by marketers and we can’t just blame all this on the herding instincts of resource-hungry shoppers.