Black Friday: Fast and Frenzied

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Matthew Staver / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Scenes from a recent Black Friday

The end of Thanksgiving week represents the high point of American consumption — a purposefully designed fast and frenzied shopping atmosphere at stores all over the country. And that’s exactly how many shoppers like it.

There are plenty of logical reasons to not bother with traditional brick-and-mortar Black Friday shopping. Given the aggressive crowds, the ease of online shopping and the studies showing that, in many cases, Black Friday does not have the best prices, it’s pretty easy to justify sleeping in on the morning after Thanksgiving — and staying home when the stores open on Thanksgiving night as well.

The research firm ShopperTrak, which compiles and analyzes foot traffic in stores, argues that the week after Thanksgiving will offer a far better experience for shoppers:

“Black Friday is not for the faint of heart,” said [ShopperTrak founder Bill] Martin. “Shoppers must brave the crowds to take advantage of good deals. If they can venture back out after just a few days, however, they’ll have the full attention of store employees and plenty of remaining discounts.”

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Despite the assumptions of diehard Black Friday shoppers, according to ShopperTrak, Tuesday, Nov. 27, will be the best day for consumers in terms of the ability to find deals and actually get a sales staffer to help you. Other experts have pointed to the week after Thanksgiving as a sweet spot for snagging the best prices on holiday gifts.

Nonetheless, there are those who cannot be talked out of Black Friday shopping. They don’t seem to buy the argument that Black Friday’s deals aren’t that great, and they don’t seem at all scared off by the monster crowds and the competitive, chaotic atmosphere at the mall. In fact, they love shopping on this day because of this atmosphere. One expert described this consumer mentality to the Detroit Free Press:

For many holiday shoppers, Black Friday is “a blood sport,” said Ken Nisch, chairman of JGA, a Southfield-based retail design and brand strategy firm. “I think a certain number of consumers are wired to see consumption as a blood sport … Some people are good golfers and some people are good shoppers.”

Considering that consumers have trampled one another to death, pepper-sprayed competing shoppers in squabbles in store aisles and exhibited other horrendous behavior on Black Fridays in the past, this can be a blood sport indeed.

In some ways, devoted Black Friday shoppers resemble extreme couponers, who seem more fixated on the idea of “winning” something, regardless of whether the game being played is a waste of time or whether the prize is truly worth fighting over. One “extreme” group of Black Friday shoppers would make the case that their time and effort was absolutely worthwhile: after spending months clipping coupons and plotting out strategies, 17 friends in Ohio came home after spending $2,000 to get $10,000 worth of merchandise last Black Friday — much of which went to needy families. USA Today has profiled another team that plans on a 24-hour Black Friday shopping marathon this year; they have even printed team T-shirts that say “Black Friday Shopping Is Not for Sissies.”

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To many, Black Friday is far more than just another day to accumulate stuff. “Remember, shopping is a leisure activity, it’s a form of entertainment, it’s a sport for some people,” Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the NPD Group, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“Many people would say that shopping is a sport,” Sears spokesman Brian Hanover told me recently. “Black Friday is the Super Bowl of this sport. We want to win the Super Bowl.”

That goes for store and shopper alike: Black Friday is a big game that both want to win, desperately. Yet is it possible for both to come out of the wild weekend feeling like winners? If the store wins — by getting the consumer to bite on as many deals as possible, including plenty of unplanned purchases — doesn’t the shopper lose? Well, if and when this happens, despite what it might do to the family budget, many shoppers would feel like they’ve won too.

(MORE: By Matching Online Prices, Are Best Buy and Target Doing Exactly What Amazon Wants?)

That might be the biggest win of all for retailers: they’ve managed to convince consumers (some at least) that the goal of store and shopper can be one and the same. Amazingly, some shoppers even seem to be directly espousing the marketingspeak of retailers, like this one quoted recently in a Wall Street Journal story about the pros of Black Friday shopping in person vs. online:

“Going to the stores means instant gratification,” said Melinda Miller, 31, who has been going to the Market Place Mall in Champaign, Ill., on Black Friday for nearly a decade. “Online, you’d miss out on all the fun.”