This year more than ever, the American tradition of Thanksgiving has been usurped by the ritualistic shopping frenzy of Black Friday. As more and more stores have been opening for Black Friday early on Thanksgiving day, the deal hunting has spilled over into the weekend with Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday; Black Friday has become a full-fledged shopping phenomenon. A large part of the shift from celebrating Thanksgiving to reveling in the $50-billion weekend of commercial and consumerist excess is the change in generational mindset. The National Retail Federation released a study that found that nearly 26 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 planned to shop on Thanksgiving Day itself.
The Smithsonian reported on Wednesday that several psychologists have taken interest in the mindset that encourages the Black Friday frenzy. “The typical Black Friday shopper is a person who is on a mission,” says Jane Boyd Thomas of Winthrop University, who studies the psychology of shoppers. “It’s part of their family’s tradition, and they’ve been doing it for years.” According to the National Retail Federation, nearly 95 million Americans will be getting up bright and early to join the great bargain race. Working together with psychologist with Cara Peters, Thomas found that the blend of competition, adventure, and family bonding involved in Black Friday led to close knit groups adopting a military mindset while bargain shopping.
One key part of the militant mindset Black Friday shoppers adopt is a tendency to follow a very strategic plan for the day. “They sit down and map it all out,” says Thomas. “’I’m going to Walmart, and when I’m there I’ll get a Barbie and a G.I. Joe, the wrapping paper and a flat screen TV.’ The day is mapped out to the point where groups identify who is going to drive and who should stand in which lines.” Thomas also found that the more strategic a group was, the more likely they were to completely ignore big in-store deals, and head straight for the more hidden, coveted bargains. The emphasis on strategy is naturally part of the bonding experience that happens between the family members, and the strangers they meet throughout the day. “Just like when you go to a movie theater or amusement park, you’re sharing that experience with strangers,” says Thomas. He explains that the mix of good and bad experiences with strangers throughout the day only further cements the competitive bonding experience of the day.
Having a strategy and working together all make the day more of a game or race than your usual day at Walmart. One interviewee told Thomas and Peters that the day was “like a game show.” While there are no clear winners and losers on Black Friday, many of the shoppers feel a great sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, often tallying up their savings and feeling like they completed their mission. Thomas explained that shoppers often feel entitled to “bragging rights” by the end of the day. There might be some changes ahead though, explained Thomas, as changes in shoppers’ habits and preferences might lead to the specific day of Black Friday to become less important. However, Thomas feels that the tradition has become too firmly entrenched to change too much in the future.