Black Friday Science: What Researchers Say About America's Post-Thanksgiving Shopping Spree

Shoes on sale are displayed at a store as the busy holiday shopping season begins in Chicago, on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. If
Shoes on sale are displayed at a store as the busy holiday shopping season begins in Chicago, on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. If the economic downturn has taught retailers anything, it’s that a 50 percent off sale isn’t enough to lure finicky American shoppers into stores these days, so this holiday season, shoppers will find that retailers are doing all kinds of things to make it easier for them to part with their money. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

I'm not big on crowds, and I hate standing in line. Maybe that's why I find Black Friday so hard to fathom. I mean, I like bargains as much as the next guy. But unlike the 147 million people who the National Retail Federation expects to shop this Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, I'm not especially eager to spend the day sardined at the local hypermart just for a chance to save a buck on a Furby.

Is Black Friday really all about bargains? I suppose that's what most shoppers would say -- and what retailers would have us believe. But while I don't doubt that it's possible to save some green on Black Friday, researchers say the retailing riot that defines the day after Thanksgiving may be less about dollars than about basic psychology.

At least psychology as it applies to women, apparently. Recent research on Black Friday consumerism has been done mainly on female shoppers, according to a 2011 article in the Washington Post. Women do most holiday gift-buying, Dr. Jane Boyd Thomas, professor of marketing at Winthorp University in Rock Hill, S.C., told the paper, adding that the stereotypes about women and shopping hold true for researchers. "The only time men were present, they were sort of just tagging along," Thomas said.

In any case, the research suggests that many Black Friday shoppers actually enjoy being part of the mobs and the quest for bargains, according to The Atlantic Wire. Black Friday discount coupons seem to amp up the pleasure. In fact, a new study sponsored by a coupon company showed that women who receive a discount coupon show reduced stress and higher levels of oxytocin, the so-called "cuddle hormone."

The enjoyment is only amplified when shoppers feel they're competing with one another for scarce merchandise.

"At certain levels, consumers enjoy arousal and challenges during the shopping process," Dr. Sang-Eun Buyn, assistant professor of consumer affairs at Auburn University in Alabama, told the Washington Post. "They enjoy something that's harder to get, and it makes them feel playful and excited."

Of course, marketing types know just what it takes to fuel this so-called "hedonic shopping." They create scarcity -- for example, by deeply discounting specific merchandise but limiting its availability. Like, I dunno, offering a 70-inch plasma television for a nickel -- but only to the person who happens to be first in line when the store opens.

Good luck with that.

"Research shows that people tend to react against limits on opportunities and reassert their freedom to have and do what they want," Dr. Laura Brannon, professor of psychology at Kansas State University, told The Huffington Post in an email. "We naturally want things that are rare or difficult to obtain... Even in the dating arena, people understand the value of playing 'hard to get.'"

Been a while since you dated? Don't worry. Dr. Brannon has another metaphor for the ways in which Black Friday shoppers affect each other's behavior: "If you have five people stand on a busy street corner and look up in the air, rest assured, most passersby will stop and look up as well because they'll assume there's something to look at."

Once shoppers line up for the coveted merchandise, others feel encouraged to join the queue. Simply put, the line lures rather than repels them. Why is that? Dr. Brannon puts it down to "social proof" -- a psychological principle she sums up with the phrase "if other people are doing something, we use that as evidence that it must be good."

Shoppers who do come away with the coveted merchandise tend to experience a satisfying "mission accomplished" feeling. I wouldn't know, of course, but that's one finding of a 2011 study involving interviews with "experienced female Black Friday shoppers."

The study was co-authored by Dr. Thomas and published in the International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management.

In the abstract of the study, Dr. Thomas and her co-author said four themes emerged in the data: familial bonding, strategic planning, and the "great race," along with that "mission accomplished" feeling. The authors concluded, "The themes coalesced around a military metaphor."

Another researcher recently used a different metaphor -- though it, too, is one that conjures up images of firearms and violence.

Black Friday is sort of like "hunting for women," said Dr. Leisa Reinecke Flynn, professor of marketing and fashion merchandising at the University of Southern Mississippi. "It's so much like deer hunting it's hard to tell the two apart."

Black Friday and deer hunting are indistinguishable? Hmm. If there's one thing I have less of a feeling for than shopping for sport, it's what it's like to grab a rifle and blast Bambi. I guess about the only thing I know about deer hunting is that it's a bloody mess.

Wait, now I get it.