For many years, Americans have had a holiday right after Thanksgiving that prompted a lot of buying. It is called Christmas. But it was a whole month away, and allegedly predicated on some non-retail themed historical event, so unto us a new ritual was born, known as Black Friday. It too has history; it’s the day when many retailers’ accounts move into the black. To mark this miraculous transformation, and to further erase the red ink, there are sales, and people go shopping.
The marketplace has historically been a prime location for humans to socialize and swap ideas and make deals that are mutually enriching. And after a period of pandemic-induced deprivation—both from fellow humans and the abundance of goods—many Americans are really looking forward to Black Friday this year. Their enthusiasm is more than matched by retailers, anxious to make up for a very lean 18 months shopping-wise, who are amping up the promotions. Several big chains, including Target, Wal-Mart and Best Buy have embraced Black Friday creep and started offering deals as early as Nov. 3. Because of supply chain difficulties, some highly desirable products, like TVs or computers, might not be as easy to come by as in the past. And the shopping stats released so far since the reopening have suggested that there is some pent up demand.
All of which is to say, it could be a very unusual Black Friday this year. There are many tips on doing the day well. Consumer Reports advises adding a browser extension to check if those prices really are discounts (and not just a discount on a markup). Bargain-savvy folks recommend shopping early. Most financial advisors suggest going in with a budget, or just skipping it altogether.
And then there are the financial experts who say that the real secret of a good Black Friday is not about finding the deals. It’s about finding yourself. “Shopping is not a one size fits all experience,” says Paco De Leon, a financial planner and the author of the upcoming Finance for the People. Here are six tips for planning your shopping strategy.
Check your FOMO
The gathering of crowds and deals all into one day (or two, if you count Cyber Monday) can lead to major Fear of Missing Out. Nobody wants to be the chump who paid full-price the day before or two days after everyone else got the big screen TV at 25% off. “I think it’s really challenging for people who are already anxious, especially,” says De Leon. “They’re constantly weighing when the best deals are happening. Is it happening now? Or will it happen on Black Friday? Just dealing with that level of uncertainty is really stressful and stress inducing.” If this sounds like you, De Leon suggests stepping back and acknowledging the amount of manipulation to which you are being subjected, especially digitally. “Social media is our own personal billboard that we have updating and constantly it knows us better than we know us.” Studies have shown that those who tend to be compulsive or impulsive are more likely to overspend. They might be better limiting their participation, or sticking to a really strict budget.
Do you love shopping—or just bargains?
According to a study released in February of this year, a love of bargains runs in families. Sometimes this is because families shop together for fun, so they grow up with it. But the researchers, who looked at the difference in shopping habits between fraternal and identical twins, also found that a love of bargains was hereditary. In the academy, these people are known as deal-prone. “They love to get a bargain. It empowers them, it motivates them,” says Robert Schindler, professor of Marketing at Rutgers University, Camden and the study’s lead author. While almost everyone enjoys saving money, less than half of the population is actually deal-prone. The deal-prone will go out of their way for a bargain. “You have these rich people, who have the penthouse on top of the high rise and they’re still deal-prone,” says Schindler. During his research, Schindler interviewed a woman who could name how much the discount was on each item in her home—even though she purchased some of them more than two decades ago.
But on a day like Black Friday—when everything’s a deal—people who are deal-prone can easily get swept away. “When you get a discount, you generally do not get exactly what you want,” says Schindler. “You’re going to buy things on sale because they’re on sale and you’ll see that you didn’t like them. The deals distorted your decision process. So you end up being less satisfied.” If you’re overly tempted by deals, go in with a shopping list and stick to it.
De Leon keeps a buy list, a taxonomy of all the things she’d like to buy. She revisits it regularly and removes some items while adding others. If something stays on her list for a while, she figures it must be something she really wants.
Consider a wingman
Some financial experts recommend shopping with a wingman, who can act as a sounding board and pull the emergency brake when the pile of too-cheap-to-refuse goods in your basket gets too high. The problem with that approach, says Schindler, is that not all friends are good at braking. “It depends on the friend you bring. And you’re probably going to want to bring a friend that thinks like you because, I mean, who wants to bring a friend who’s like, ‘You’d better not do that.’ That’s not much of a friend; that’s your mom.” On the other hand, having a friend with whom you can switch out standing in the checkout line as the other person runs around looking for more bargains can be a real time saver.
Reframe the scarcity narrative
Marketers encourage retailers to cultivate a scarcity mindset around their offerings. “These deals can’t last!!” messages abound. This can add a frisson of excitement to the proceedings but also contribute to people acting impulsively. “If you’ve grown up with financial scarcity, or you have [a history of] trauma when it comes to scarcity, and you’re met with these kinds of sales, you might react in like what looks like an irrational way or a way that’s not in your best interest,” says De Leon. People feel they have to buy items even if they don’t need them. She has one email address under which she signs up for all websites and promotions and only checks it occasionally and that way keeps herself from being bombarded by sales with countdown clocks. An email filter can serve this purpose, funneling promotions into a separate folder. When shopping in person, remember the epic advice from Sandra Bullock’s character Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side: “The store’s where you like it the best.” If you don’t love it there, you’ll like it even less at home.
Think about your motivations
For some people, getting a deal is not just a way to save money. It’s a way of establishing their identity, their status. If they can outsmart businesses and other consumers, they must be smarter or more cunning or courageous than others. “It’s a game, it’s a hunt,” says Schindler. “Plus, you’re fighting against the big corporations. So when you win against them, you know, you’ve done something, it feels good.” In those cases, the point of the purchase is not because you need a product; the point is filling an internal void. If you can’t afford to spend the money, look for another way to satisfy that need.
Are you being generous or thoughtless?
A lot of people get tempted to buy items because they know that if they can’t use it, they can store it and give it away later. But a 2015 study suggests that while people who keep gift closets think they are being good givers because they always have a gift ready for any opportunity, recipients aren’t so sure. Many recipients believe that a gift they suspect comes from a big store of inventory is less meaningful because it was not selected for them, but merely happened to be available when they had a celebration. The giver may as well have not bothered. “People [with gift closets] aren’t saving money,” says Schindler.
Retail therapy is real, says De Leon, but it doesn’t really work. “We have to face ourselves and we have to ask the questions,” she says. “Everybody has their own unique story of why shopping makes them feel good. I think we all have to do the work and understand if our behaviors are not matching up with what our intentions are.” Schindler is more phlegmatic: “If you really enjoy getting deals, go for it. That’s what life is about: doing what you enjoy, ” he says. But he warns people not to kid themselves that they’re improving their finances or being fiscally responsible. “If that’s what you think you’re doing, maybe you should think again.”
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