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The Pitfalls of Black Friday

Women shopping on Black Friday

Shop Smarter By Knowing the Tricks of the Trade

It wasn’t so long ago that Black Friday took place on just one day and entirely within brick-and-mortar stores with local TV crews clamoring to cover the overnight spenders. It was, after all, the most lucrative retail day of the year. Recently, of course, the internet has brought 24-hour shopping to the couch. Meanwhile, pre-holiday deals elongated, which diluted the spending frenzy into a week (or more).

Despite the evolution of Black Friday, some of its traditions—and traps—remain the same. Because retailers still know what drives us to buy and buy more, the real deals come to only those who shop smart. This season, whether you hit the stores or the keyboard, familiarize yourself with the following tricks of the trade to be sure your Black Friday shopping trip is worth your time and money.

Urgency makes us act rashly

Images of shoppers rushing the doors at midnight and fighting over high-priced children’s toys are part and parcel with images of Black Friday. Rest assured, there’s money to be made on that vision.

Researchers have demonstrated when people perceive a sense of urgency about something—whether a threat or a bonus—they are more likely to make rash decisions and engage in risky behavior. This effect only increases when combined with, say, a thrilling environment, a lack of planning on the part of the person, or a general inability to remain focused (say, after a big meal?).

Retailers benefit from creating all kinds of heightened emotional states whether negative (anxiety over limited deals and misbehaving people) or positive (feeling part of a large crowd in celebration). That’s because any heightened emotional state—whether positive or negative—signals in us a need to act, and quickly.

Quantity can often trump quality

Speaking of research, a closer look at what really goes on sale over the Black Friday days reveals some of the deals you’ll find aren’t necessarily the best deals around. Retailers might catch your eye with a dramatically slashed price, but on a lesser quality product or brands you wouldn’t normally consider. Especially when it comes to products you’re likely to depend upon for a while, for example, electronics and household appliances, it can be worth checking your excitement over landing a great price and instead spending more money on an item of superior quality. Sometimes the cheapest deal just isn’t the best deal.

“Doorbuster” specials are meant to make you spend more

Much like the loss-leaders used by grocery stores to draw you in with an irresistible ground beef special, dramatic deals on shiny electronics do the same. Even online retailers know while an irresistible deal might initially draw you to their website, sellers know you might just stay and shop for that unexpected item you hadn’t planned on buying.

Ensuring you don’t fall prey to those additional purchases requires that you decide ahead of time how much you’re going to spend and on what. If you do stumble upon a great deal on something you hadn’t planned on, remind yourself if you haven’t done your research on that particular item, you really don’t know if it’s a great deal or not. If nothing else, take a step back and take a few breaths. Mindful shopping can clear your head and your cart.

The small print can get even smaller

Beware that some stores change their policies over the Black Friday weekend. They may suspend their price-match guarantees, for example, or charge restocking fees should you choose to return or exchange your purchases. Online companies may suspend or alter their free shipping policy (in part because shipping companies may add a surcharge to residential addresses over the holiday months). Read the small print before you jump in, and ask lots of questions as you check out.


If you’re still inspired to hit the stores in pursuit of an irresistible deal, remember the goal of retailers is to get you on their websites and in their stores where other items are sure to seduce. Challenge yourself to stay focused: research the deals ahead of time, set a budget for your spending, make a list of items you intend to buy, look into any changes to return policies and shipping costs and take a step back when you feel rushed, anxious or elated. After all, a good deal is only good if you manage to save money—not when you spend more than you intended in the first place.