With next Friday sure to be one of the biggest shopping days of the year, Katherine White, Sauder’s Professor in Consumer Insights, Prosocial Consumption, and Sustainability, discusses how Black Friday runs counter to the positive consumer behaviours she studies.

What’s the problem?

Black Friday encourages mass consumerism, which is clearly not so sustainable. A more sustainable view would be that we should only be purchasing things we really need and things that are durable and last a long time, rather than randomly buying things we don’t really need just because they’re on sale.

A lot of consumers spend too much on Black Friday as they rationalize their over-spending by thinking, “I bought this pair of designer jeans because it was on sale, so it basically paid for itself.” But of course it didn’t pay for itself.  In extreme cases, you see shoppers picking fights over the latest toy or gadget, or getting trampled by crowds. These clearly aren’t normal behaviours.

Why do they do it then?

Stores draw in big crowds by making it seem like a limited-time opportunity. In marketing we call that scarcity – it gets people to buy things right away, thinking, “If I don’t buy this now, it might be gone, or the price might go up again.”

There’s also the fact that everybody’s doing it. If there’s a big crowd and people are lining up for something it makes you think, “Hey, maybe I should get in that lineup too, so I don’t miss out.” People get caught up the fervour, and maybe they don’t think through their choices as much as they normally would.

What’s the alternative?

Not everyone is buying stuff they don’t need – some shoppers are smart about it, and take advantage of it as an opportunity. They figure out what they really want, scope it out and do their research, and then wait until Black Friday so they can get something for a lower price that they would have bought anyway. Be smart with your decisions and ask yourself, “Do I really need this item?”

Another option is to boycott the day altogether. Adbusters, a Vancouver-based not-for-profit magazine, promotes its “Buy Nothing Day” on the same day as Black Friday. Brands can even get behind this; the outdoorsy Patagonia apparel company already does. They actually encourage people to fix their old clothes and donate what they don’t want anymore. They even had a “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign as a counter to Black Friday. They were telling people they shouldn’t buy so much stuff, and it’s actually paying off as a strategy. Their customers like the sustainable vision the company promotes, and will pay a bit more for some really durable hiking pants from a company they trust, so they don’t need to buy a new pair every six months.

And there’s now a movement called Giving Tuesday that encourages people to donate to charities the day after Cyber Monday, the online follow-up to Black Friday. This seems to be strategically taking advantage of a psychological concept called “moral balancing” - if you do something bad, later on you can do something good to make up for it. The marketers behind Giving Tuesday are hoping that if you feel guilty about splurging on Friday, perhaps you could resolve those negative feelings with a gift to your favourite charity.

For more on Black Friday, click here for a Q&A with Associate Professor JoAndrea Hoegg, Canada Research Chair in Consumer Behaviour, who delves deeper into the psychology of the retail phenomenon.