Black Friday deals are not worth the hype – but our brains tell us they are

Why we can’t escape the “swindle”.

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Consider the humble Indesit IDC8T3B tumble dryer. That poor, confused appliance went on quite a journey of self-worth last year. On Black Friday in 2018, it was being sold at Currys PC World for £199. How proud it must have been to be part of the country’s newest, most flashy bargain bonanza! How eager to wash and dry savvy, money-saving customers’ whites and colours!

But if you looked at its price just two weeks before Black Friday, as the consumer rights magazine Which? did, you would have found it £20 cheaper than its Black Friday price.

This is the “great Black Friday swindle”, the description used by Which? researchers who have been tracking the costs of items six months before and after Black Friday for four years to find out whether they really are deals at all. They found that just 5 per cent of Black Friday sale products were cheaper on or around Black Friday than at other times of the year, and other offers misrepresent the extent of the discount. This year, Asos has already been screenshotted in the act.

It’s been the same story ever since Amazon brought the Black Friday tradition over from the US, where flash sales following Thanksgiving are a tradition. The “Black Friday” label for this retail bonanza dates back to the 1950s, thought to refer to shops moving out of the red and into the black.

The first time the UK really submitted to Black Friday in all its capitalist filth, however, was in 2013 when physical fights broke out at Asda stores for cut-price TVs – aisle aggression being another US import – following the store chain Walmart’s purchase of the supermarket.

Most of that frenzied buying has now moved online, despite the distinct lack of meaningful deals.

“It’s a work of evil genius,” says Adam French, senior consumer rights editor at Which?. “Black Friday is not that different to any other sales period through the year. The big difference is the hype. The hype around it is huge, and the number of retailers involved is astronomical.”

He says the “amount of attention it grabs” doesn’t “stand up to scrutiny in terms of the hype”, warning that “people get wrapped up in this hype and potentially could be spending money they didn't need to buying things that actually weren’t that great an offer, because you’re just looking at the potential savings rather than whether it's a product you really want and need”.

As with other big retail events, including bank holiday, Boxing Day and January sales, you are just as likely to find deals at other times of year, and less likely to impulse buy if you keep tabs on products you want for a longer period.

So why are we seduced by Black Friday?

It’s all about the psychological techniques used by retailers.

One prominent tactic used on Black Friday is providing the number that an item has been reduced from. Your brain fixates on that number, even though it’s arbitrary, rather than on the price you end up paying.

This is called “anchoring”, according to consumer neuroscientist and marketing professor Dr Mike Nicholson of Durham University Business School.

“Most of these biases are hardwired in the brain,” he says. “They’re a product of evolution from years ago, and ‘anchoring’ is a common one – we love to compare things, even if there’s no logical comparison. You fixate on the previous number. If you see £300, that’s what you’re comparing it to, you don’t think further back from that. It’s stuck in your head.”

So strong is this pull that it defies rational thinking. In one of Dr Nicholson’s experiments, he asked participants to write down the last four digits of their telephone number and then made them bid for items in an auction that they didn’t know the value of. “Their bids correlated with their telephone number, because their brain is comparing it with the last number they heard.”

Another method used on Black Friday sales items is telling the buyer how many others are “watching” the offer. This is called “social proof bias” – if lots of people are looking at something, your brain makes an “unconscious evaluation” that the product or the deal “must be good”, says Dr Nicholson.

Yet Black Friday’s main trick is an all-out frenzy. Emotions cloud our rational judgement.

“Events like Black Friday – and they have to be [pegged to] an event like that or Christmas or, in the old days, January sales – are playing on emotions and keeping the decisions largely unconscious,” says Dr Nicholson.

When our brains are on autopilot, “we rely on quick rules without even thinking about them, or our emotions, so the brain can get on with more important things – and if you create enough excitement you can keep the brain in autopilot longer,” he says.

“When we’re shopping in the supermarket, for example, two-thirds of what we buy roughly is on autopilot, and we get to the checkout with things we didn’t come in for!”

Emotions induced by the marketing machine around Black Friday are supplemented with countdown timers on offers, and telling buyers how many items are left in stock on some websites.

“If you’ve ever shopped on Amazon and seen ‘only 27 left in stock’, or ‘order within the next 4 hours 32 minutes and 15, 14, 13 seconds to get it tomorrow’, the emotion takes over so you act on impulse and get it.”

No matter how savvy we think we are as shoppers, it’s difficult to force our brains to override these psychological pulls. This year, UK consumers are estimated to spend about £8bn in the eight days around Black Friday, and over £1.5bn on the day itself, according to figures from Which?.

So the best thing to do is set a budget and figure out what specific things you want, to avoid impulse buying.

“These deals happen all year round, there’ll be just as good deals later in the year,” advises Adam French. “It’s an expensive time of year with Christmas coming up so don’t spend money you don’t have… This hype is a powerful, evil genius thing, it motivates people to spend money that maybe they wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.