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This Thursday is Thanksgiving, a day where we cherish the time spent with family as a reminder of why you moved very far away from them.  We will roast a large bird and put marshmallows in our potatoes all to celebrate and give thanks for what we have. And then somewhat ironically, 140m Americans will trample others in the sales, exactly one day after being thankful for what they already had. Welcome to Black Friday.

Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) has been the unofficial kick-off to the Christmas retail shopping season for well over 60 years now. Originally the term was coined in Philadelphia to describe the vehicle and pedestrian crowds swarming the streets, in town for the Army v Navy game and looking for a bargain. And despite all our omni-channel solutions, technology and channels, the retail chaos still ensues. Every year there are hundreds injured and even deaths. Last year a man was shot in a retail-rage incident outside a Tennessee shopping mall, all because he ‘glanced at a woman’ during the sales crush (there is actually a website documenting Black Friday deaths and injuries, appropriately named

But why does it remain such a unique retail event, and now has spread to the UK and many other countries worldwide? And although Cyber Monday accounted for a higher sales revenue versus Black Friday, what still drives shoppers to behave irrationally, queue for hours in the cold and panic like there is some unforetold Armageddon coming? Here are five possible reasons.

1. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

While more pronounced amongst Gen Z or the Millennial generations, FOMO has become a key driver across all human behaviour, catalysed by the rise of social media. Anyone who has ever tried to follow through on a ‘phone confiscation’ punishment with their teenage kids knows the impossibility of that task. Being connected, up-to-date and inside the conversation is key. Checking our WhatsApp, Snapchat or Facebook, seeing the updates, what is happening where and with who. It has all become normal social behaviour.

Black Friday is somewhat driven by this FOMO phenomenon also. If you stay at home, what could you miss? What bargains are lurking inside those stores? Sure you can click on-line but what if inside the store lies that deal of a lifetime? And perhaps more importantly, what will be your Black Friday story to share on social media?

Retailers leverage FOMO by opening earlier and earlier. What started many years ago as early hours opening on the day after Thanksgiving made way to 4am store openings, then midnight, and then into Thanksgiving Day itself. The message is simple. Better get here early or you’ll miss out!

2. Hunter

Humans are hunter/gatherers. That means that we are inherently wired to seek out our food to survive. To kill and cook, to pick and harvest. We have to go to find our food to survive. While stores like Target and Walmart have replaced the caves and jungles, the hard-wiring remains the same. That drip of Dopamine (the reward hormone) when you find a bargain.

Everyone loves a good treasure hunt. Everyone loves the thrill of a race, the jostling to win, the focus on survival. While many shoppers will arrive to store for some specific items they wish to acquire, it is likely that many Black Friday purchases will be made in a heightened impulse mode. The panic and crowds and bargains trigger that hunter/gather response and before you know it you have a trolley full of goodies and a credit card that is melting. The Hunt it on!

3. Herding

Have you ever been walking along a promenade on vacation looking to select a restaurant for dinner? You pass an empty restaurant, it looks pleasant but you keep walking. Why? It might serve the most delicious food, it looks clean, fashionable, but you don’t stop. No one else is eating there so you don’t either. It is hard to get the first diners to sit down.

This is Herding, again hard-wired into us as a survival mechanism. Stay with the pack, safety in numbers. It is an unconscious response but a powerful one. It is simply human nature to run with the pack.

The sheer numbers in-store, in line outside, or talking about Black Friday on social media make it a self-fulfilling prophesy. This isn’t just FOMO but a deep routed desire to move with the herd. This is magnified by the fever pitch deals, the crowds, the anticipation, the queues. You need to be involved, you need to run with the herd, often quite literally!

4. Ritual

We love rituals, particularly around holidays. We celebrate a festival at Easter to commemorate the death of Christ by having a giant bunny deliver chocolate eggs. We celebrate Christmas by all sitting around a dead tree eating candy from a sock. We blow spit all over a cake (and then ask our friends to share it with us) to celebrate our birthday. Rituals are funny things but we love them.

They give us an anchor. Repeated actions that link to our memories. They give us something to look forward to and something to remember. They are significant moments marking an occasion. Black Friday has become as much part of the Thanksgiving traditions for most, equal, if not more important than the Turkey. Let’s face it, if the Indians and colonists were to meet today, it would be more likely to happen in the overnight queue to get into a Target

And once something is part of a ritual, it is hard to stop doing. It just feels wrong. What would Thanksgiving weekend be without elbowing someone in the face to get that last iPhone XI

5. Experience

The video above shows the madness that ensues on Black Friday (jump to the 2-minute mark if you are the impatient type). It is a retail experience like no other. Experiential retail is key for stores to compete in an omnichannel world. And this is a lesson in the many forms a retail experience can take.

One could never describe a Black Friday store experience as overly pleasant, but it is unique! There is a sense of excitement, of anticipation, of a moment shared. It is a moment that is high in shopper shareability. Selfies are snapped in that queue, their successful purchases shared afterwards with friends on social media. Cyber Monday is nowhere near as much fun. Black Friday is a full contact sport.

Retail experiences still draw a crowd. Get the in-store part right and shoppers will still come, even in their millions.

So Black Friday lives on. This year the estimated gross of the holiday season in America alone will be $730bn. Shoppers still want an experience, they want to hunt a bargain, they follow the crowds as they fear missing out, and they enjoy the ritual.

Eat a second slice of pumpkin pie. You might just need the stamina in-store tomorrow.

Ken Hughes, known as The King of Customer Experience on the International Conference Circuit, studies emerging consumer behaviour and helps businesses and brands establish deeper and more relevant connections with their customers.

Book Ken to speak your next event.

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