In the lead up to Christmas, Black Friday gives us all an opportunity to splash out on some great purchases and gifts whilst (seemingly) saving us some money. Although the days of watching people wrestle for discounted TVs seem long gone, it’s still a day of huge opportunity for retailers.
We like to think we’re in control of what we choose to purchase in the Black Friday sales. But, if we take a deeper look, we can identify some sneaky behavioural science principles. Then we’ll give you some top tips.
A scarcity promotion is a marketing tactic that emphasises limited availability (either in quantity or time) of a specific product or event. Companies use scarcity promotional tactics throughout the year, but mostly in sales like Black Friday or other high profile shopping events, when large discounts are offered on highly desirable items, but available quantity is often limited, as is the time to access the promotion (only that day or week).
It’s why we used to see fights break out in stores on Black Friday! Scarcity makes us think less and buy more, in the fear that we’ll miss out on an unmissable deal.
Think of Amazon’s lightning deals - there is a literal countdown for how many have been ‘claimed’!
And scarcity isn’t just around the quantity of products available, it’s also about the timing. We’re told that the discounts are only on one day (even though Black Friday often lasts a week or two nowadays, and discounts are usually available all year round).
A series of 7 experiments was conducted with a total of 1,173 participants being exposed to a promotional ad for a highly desirable product.
The promotion varied, however, such that the available quantity was either very low (scarcity), very high (control), or made no mention of product quantity. These participants then moved to a ‘different’ study, in which they had the opportunity to behave aggressively (e.g playing video games, a jammed vending machine etc). The results showed that those who had been exposed to scarcity promotions had increased aggressive behaviour, because they viewed other shoppers as a potential competitive threat to obtaining the desired product.
Pretty crazy what the fear of missing out can do.
Another behavioural science principle we can see everywhere on Black Friday is framing. Framing is the idea that our choices are influenced by the way they are framed through different wordings, settings and situations.
With the promotional emails, banners and other advertisements we see everywhere, businesses frame purchasing as a default - that the norm is for you to hunt for deals on Black Friday (and at Christmas time in general). This makes us feel like it would be silly for us not to purchase something. Words with positive and motivational connotations like “save”, “grab”, and “now” are used frequently.
As well as this, retailers really like to frame gifting at the end of the year as a given, so we feel more obliged to purchase.
These aren’t criticisms of the retail industry! The way promotions like Black Friday are portrayed is just an example of the impact of positive framing. In combination with ideas like scarcity, it’s important to show the benefits of making a purchase, right now.
In a study among undergraduate students, respondents were presented with the following
medical decision-making problem, described with both a positive and a negative frame. Responses were recorded on a 6-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (very bad) to 6 (very good).
- Positive: 100 patients took the medicine, and 70 patients got better. How would you evaluate the drug’s effect?
- Negative: 100 patients took the medicine, and 30 patients didn’t get better. How would you evaluate the drug’s effect?
The results revealed that the framing influenced the evaluation: when the drug’s effect was described with a loss frame (30 patients didn’t get better), respondents gave negative evaluations. When the effect was described with a gain frame (70 patients got better), respondents gave positive evaluations.
Anchoring is an example of priming, a classic behavioural science principle and is one of the most important ones for events like Black Friday.
Anchoring is a cognitive bias that causes us to rely heavily on the first piece of information we’re given about a topic. When we’re making a decision, for example to buy something, we interpret newer information from the reference point of our anchor instead of seeing it objectively. This can impact our judgement and make us less objective.
We all know that the Black Friday deals might not be as good as they appear. There’s rumours that prices are inflated before the event to make the discounts look more dramatic, or that they’re no larger than usual deals on the item at other times in the year.
A Which? Investigation in 2020 found that many retailers used old prices as the “was” price, rather than the most recent price before discount, making people think they are saving more than they actually are. The same investigation also found that only 3 out of the 119 products they tracked were at their cheapest price during Black Friday. Similarly, if the customer is first exposed to the product at a reduced rate, returning later to the standard price may be viewed as unreasonably high.
It’s pretty simple - with the framing, the scarcity, and when we see a ‘cheap’ price against a more expensive one, we’re likely to feel more motivated to make a purchase.
How to shop smarter on Black Friday
So, with all these behavioural science tactics at play, how can we make sure we’re making informed purchasing decisions?
Firstly, in regards to scarcity, the most important thing is for us to be prepared as consumers. Leaving Black Friday browsing until the day may lead to us making irrational and rushed decisions because of the fear of missing out.
After a particular Christmas present, need a new washing machine, or wanting to upgrade your phone? Do your research in the days/weeks leading up to the sales, to make sure you know you’re getting a good deal, and that it’s a product you actually need. If you go into the promotions with a solid list and plan of what you need and what you’re willing to pay, you’re golden.
As for anchoring, there are some great, free tools to see if you are getting a genuine discount or if you can find a better price elsewhere. Sites that MoneySavingExpert recommends are Google Shopping, PriceSpy, PriceRunner and CamelCamelCamel that tracks prices on Amazon.
Black Friday is a great opportunity to make some amazing purchases, support the high street, and save some money. But shop smart to avoid any buyer’s remorse!
There you have it! The behavioural science principles to look out for on Black Friday, and how to make smart buying decisions in the frenzy of deals.
Check out the world’s first behavioural science book specific to retail and hospitality here.