Markdowns and mayhem: exploring Black Friday behavior

Taylor Atienza, Features Editor

Arrests, occasional deaths and a number of injuries serve as a rather tumultuous antecedent of the holiday season.

This year, a Walmart customer was shot and killed in an argument over a parking spot, according to the New York Post. Two years prior, the Greater Manchester Police was summoned to seven Tesco locations to arrest three men, according to BBC. The commonality between these incidents is that they both occurred during a Black Friday sales event.

The term “Black Friday” refers to the day after Thanksgiving Day, when retailers present a number of generous discounts to the public. For many, it’s a time to get ahead on holiday shopping, or simply a day when they can find a good deal. An $80 TV is nothing to scoff at, right?

But beyond what seems like general excitement over a discounted appliance is occasional violence exhibited by shoppers. There are a plethora of videos circulating online that provide a look at some of the more extreme Black Friday accidents — people step over and on one another, doors are broken, arguments fill the air — all in the name of a sale. And in the face of such actions, one must wonder: What is it about Black Friday that can so drastically alter human behavior?

In “An Analysis of Consumer Behavior on Black Friday,” a study by the American International Journal of Contemporary Research, 22 observers recorded individual findings after monitoring activity before and during a sale. While 47.3 percent of the observers reported calm behavior, another 24.3 percent witnessed irritability amongst the customers. Instances of aggressive acts were also reported: 5.9 percent saw pushing, and another 8.1 percent reported cart bumping (AIJCR).

The drive behind the negative behavior can be attributed to inherently human factors as well as environmental pressures. They play equal parts in encouraging the hostility exhibited by some as they struggle to fulfill their desire for objects they have deemed as necessary possessions.

“It’s inherited in the sense that we are competitive,” says AP Psychology teacher Mr. Julian Pont. “I don’t think this is anything new, but I do think that it’s being exacerbated and highlighted more and more as materialism becomes more of a priority.”

The structure of Black Friday is intricate in itself: advertisements for the day tend to appear on your TV screen at least a week prior, and times at which stores open their doors to the masses have even creeped into the early evening of Thanksgiving Day — all in an effort to entice potential customers for what is considered as the largest sales days of the year.

“People truly want to get a good deal, and so they might be less rational … when they can look in the environment and find different cues that make them think they’re getting a good deal,” says Mr. Kenneth Manning, a professor of marketing at Colorado State University (LiveScience).

This lack of rationality plays into the desperation and aggression exhibited by some on Black Friday. The phenomenon of mob mentality, in which individuals in a crowd feel a sense of anonymity and believe they won’t be held accountable for their actions, also contributes to aggression.  

“Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviors that a person would not typically engage in if alone,” states Tamara Avant, psychology program director at South University (South University).

Yet these adrenaline-charged moments are not the sole cause of the ensuing frenzy. It may go beyond mere enthusiasm, and could instead be linked to basic human instinct. Despite the chaos, Black Friday is still extremely successful. In 2014, retail stores’ profits amounted to $11.6 billion (US News).

“There are pros to Black Friday,” reminds Pont. “I mean, you are getting a good deal, and you are spending, and that does stimulate the economy.”

One potential benefit could be the positive feelings associated with spending — research has shown that there are self-gratifying feelings associated with the event. In some cases, success in obtaining a specific item makes individuals feel more accomplished.

Marketing professor Mr. Peter Darke from York University in Toronto stated, “There’s some evidence to suggest that it reflects back on them as a sort of rational, good, effective, skilled shopper” (LiveScience).

Humans crave this accomplishment due to the competitive nature of people, which is an evolutionary trait that ensures survival. In present times, it has morphed into a race for belongings, one that reflects our growing interest in material possessions.

“I think it’s inherent in nature,” adds Pont. “I think it’s exploited … as a form of oppression and ignorance in order to control the masses.”

Thus, it is in this effort to compete and attain a sense of success where irrational behavior overtakes general courtesy and civilized manners. On Black Friday, an environment is cultivated where instincts are heightened and people become convinced that they do in fact need that discounted appliance. In privileged society, the wants of man move beyond food or water; in an age of increasing materialism, we bear witness to the intensity of basic human instinct that is further exaggerated by a newfound desire for all things material. Indeed, it seems our priorities have certainly evolved.