Black Friday
November 24, 2016
Vanessa Miller

Hats, mittens, cocoa and even tents used to play a prominent role in the Black Friday experience as groups of friends and solo bargain-hunters alike would line up for “door buster” sales outside big-box merchants nationwide.

But with a swelling number of retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart opening Thanksgiving Day, and with many offering the same in-store deals online and earlier in the month, some experts have signaled “the death of Black Friday.”

“Black Friday is losing its relevancy,” according to a Business Insider report this week.

Foot traffic through stores nationally on the unofficial shopping holiday is expected to drop about 3.5 percent from last year, according to tracking service Foursquare.

Although that doesn’t mean consumers aren’t buying.

The National Retail Federation is projecting overall holiday spending to increase 3.6 percent, to $655.8 billion in November and December — well above the 10-year average of 2.5 percent. Non-store sales are forecast to swell 7 to 10 percent.

Much of that purchasing activity — including online and in-store sales — is occurring before Black Friday. The federation earlier this week reported more than half of consumers already started their holiday shopping, according to the organization’s midseason survey.

Moreover, nine of 10 said those polled said they could be convinced to spend $25 over their budget.

The ‘lonely shopper’

And that’s where University of Iowa associate marketing professor Jing “Alice” Wang” said one type of consumer should be especially cautious: the lonely shopper.

“Because a lonely person doesn’t have the kind of relationships they want, they feel socially isolated, so they’re worried about what they don’t have, and that leads to mental-resource depletion,” Wang said. “Research has found resource depletion has many different effects on people, and one of them is impulsive buying.”

Wang, who has been studying lonely people and their shopping habits in the UI Tippie College of Business, said people who are satisfied with the number and quality of relationships — and thus are not lonely — tend to exercise more self-control and are capable of curbing impulse buying.

“Lonely people don’t mean to buy something, they just do, and this can lead to negative downstream emotions, like regret,” Wang said.

And just because those folks are shopping during the busy holiday season, Wang said it’s not fair to assume they’re buying gifts.

“Lonely people, socially isolated people, also tend to be less pro-social, so they’re less likely to give gifts or donate money to organizations,” she said.

They are more likely to bond with purchases, which often are fringe buys not endorsed by a consumer majority, according to Wang.

“They form a meaningful connection to it,” she said. “That’s not the case with shoppers who aren’t lonely …. They don’t typically form humanlike relationships with it.”

Although analysts report shrinking Black Friday crowds, Wang said that might be one place lonely shoppers show up — as they typically don’t want to be alone and crave social interaction.

“Based on previous research, there’s a good chance that when people are lonely, they might actually engage in social behaviors to reduce that,” Wang said.

Whether shopping with hoards of unconnected people or interacting with a sales clerk would fulfill their needs isn’t clear, she said. But people with lonely family members might do well by them to inviting them on a Black Friday expedition.

“If there’s a lonely member in the family and the rest of the family call them and say, ‘Hey, let’s go out and shop,’ that would for sure reduce the feeling of loneliness because that way they are going shopping with a meaningful social partner,” Wang said.

‘It’s just been a tradition’

Lori Merlak, 47, of Mount Vernon has been setting an early-morning alarm every Black Friday since 2011 solely for the social side of the shopping holiday. She takes her teenage daughter, some of the girl’s friends and the one of two international students they have living in their home.

“It’s just been a tradition,” Merlak said. “It truly started because we had international students who were very intrigued.”

Last year, the group took their exchange student from Australia. This year the family has two students from the Ivory Coast who are looking forward to the Black Friday blowout.

And having witnessed all of the last five Black Fridays from the front lines, Merlak said she can testify to the dissipating crowds.

“There are smaller crowds and fewer people,” she said, noting that Coral Ridge Mall around 6 a.m. last year was relatively “dead.” “The craziness always happened right when the stores opened, and now that so many open on Thanksgiving night … it is what it is.”

But, Merlak said, they still like going — even if not for specific deals and first-come, first-serve bargains and even though online sales and early openings have tempered the chaos.

“It’s a silly tradition my daughter enjoys,” she said, noting her 12-year-old son is coming this year for the first time. “I think he was feeling like he misses out.”