The Black Friday that the news shows is all stampedes and helicopter shots of endless crowds. It does not show the personal side. Black Friday, for many, is more about having a ritualistic experience with loved ones, rather than grabbing good deals.
An investigative study of Black Friday, lead by West Chester University Professor Gina Castle Bell, observed themes of consumerism but also observed the themes of a happy holiday. The researchers found through Black Friday people celebrate, plan, bond, and build traditions together. For veterans of Black Friday, the day is ultimately a personal ritualistic experience with personal idiosyncrasies and connections to loved ones.
For me my Black Friday always begins and ends on a living room floor littered with newspaper ads. There, late on Thanksgiving night, my family collectively holds a strategy session. Later, we race to early bird specials, nerd out with strangers in lines sharing stories of Black Fridays foregone, take a long relaxing lunch full of family banter, get Christmas decorations, stop into a Cheesecake Factory bar to see the dramatic end of a football game, get a caffeine-high from Starbucks Christmas drinks, and end the shopping at a torn apart Old Navy, digging to find late available basics like socks.
Finally, we collapse back on that living room floor, still littered with ads, where we drink hot cocoa, watch a Christmas movie, and plan to hang the new decorations. And through all its exhaustion and frantic moments, Black Friday actually feels quite lovely and loving.
This is not to say that Black Friday is always lovely. Let's not kid ourselves. Black Friday is often miserable (and not just if you are an Oregon State Beavers fan--necessary Oregon "Civil War" Black Friday taunt). But the misery is sort of what makes Black Friday such a great tradition (well not for Beavers fans). Many Black Friday shoppers know that the deals on Black Friday are not especially great and are available online. But they did not show up for the deals, they showed for the "misery."
For them the crowds, the rush, and the difficulty all enhance Black Friday--similar to the way crowds enhance movie opening nights, the rush enhances music festivals, and difficulty enhances the experience of camping for other types of people. Those crazy elements transform the events into what us consumer researchers call a "collectible experience." Collectible experiences are not always pleasant but they are memorable and meaningful to those game for them.
Importantly, through these many exhaustive Black Fridays people develop a history. If you have never gone out on Black Friday, you do not have a Black Friday history, so the day will not mean anything to you. You will not get warm memories of being young, looking through Toys R Us catalogs with your parents, or the warm glow of having your ritualistic Black Friday quad-shot peppermint mocha. Each year, an experienced Black Friday shopper does not just consume products on that day, they consume a wealth of memories and connections.
There seems to be a mad rush in the media to analyze Black Friday. Yet, every analysis misses the point that Black Friday, which though on the surface seems like just vile consumerism, is actually, for some, quite a meaningful, ritualistic experience.
Maybe this happy holiday is not for you. Maybe you think it is silly or even disgusting that Americans choose to bond through, over all other options, shopping. But whatever your personal and moral opinion, what you cannot deny is that Black Friday has become something bigger than deals.
Black Friday has become a part of a collective and personal culture, where many shoppers are not trying to avoid the hassle and craziness of the day; instead, they are trying to strategically and joyously dive into it. And, right now, on living room floors all across America, families are planning how to get the most out of their yearly ritual.
------------------------ See The Behavioral Economics of Black Friday for more from Troy Campbell. Professor Troy Campbell is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Oregon's Lundquist College of Business.