When building supply and demand models, the assumption is usually made that both producers and consumers act in a ‘rational’ way to achieve the best possible outcomes. As far as producers are concerned, this would mean attempting to maximise profit. As far as consumers are concerned, it would mean attempting to achieve the highest satisfaction (utility) from their limited budget. This involves a cost–benefit calculation, where people weigh up the costs and benefits of allocating their money between different goods and services.
For consumers to act rationally, the following assumptions are made:
- Consumer choices are made independently. Their individual choices and preferences are not influenced by other people’s, nor do their choices and preferences impact on other people’s choices.
- The consumer’s preferences are consistent and fixed.
- Consumers have full information about the products available and alternatives to them.
- Given the information they have and the preferences they hold, consumers will then make an optimal choice.
Black Friday can be seen as a perfect occasion for consumers to get their hands on a bargain. It is an opportunity to fulfil a rational need, for example if you were needing to replace a household appliance but were waiting until there was a good deal before committing to a purchase.
The assumption that people act rationally has been at the forefront of economic theory for decades. However, this has been questioned by the rise in behavioural economics. Rather than assuming that all individuals are ‘rational maximisers’ and conduct a cost–benefit analysis for every decision, behavioural economists mix psychology with economics by focusing on the human. As humans, we do not always behave rationally but, instead, we act under bounded rationality.
As economic agents, we make different decisions depending on our emotional state that differ from the ‘rational choice’ assumption. We are also influenced by our social networks and often make choices that provide us with immediate gratification. Given this, Black Friday can also be viewed as a great opportunity to fall prey to irrational and emotional shopping behaviours.
Black Friday originated in the USA and is the day after Thanksgiving. During this annual shopping holiday, retailers typically offer steep discounts to kick off the holiday season. The Black Friday shopping phenomenon is less than a decade old in the UK but it’s now an established part of the pre-Christmas retail calendar. Between 2010 and 2013, Black Friday gradually built up momentum in the UK. In 2014, Black Friday became the peak pre-Christmas online sales day and many online retailers haven’t looked back.
Arguably, from a behavioural economist’s perspective, the big problem with Black Friday is that all the reasons consumers possibly have to partake can be largely illusory. Consumers are bombarded with the promise of one-off deals, large discounts, scarce products, and an opportunity to get their holiday shopping done all at once. However, on Black Friday, our rational decision-making faculties are tested, just as stores are trying their hardest to maximise consumers’ mistakes.
There are many ‘behavioural traps’ that consumers often fall into. The following two are most likely to occur on Black Friday:
- Scarcity and loss aversion. Shoppers may fear that they will miss out on the best sales deals available if they don’t buy it now. Retailers commonly spark consumers’ interest by highlighting limited stocks available for a limited time only, which raises the perceived value of these goods. This sense of scarcity can further trigger the need to buy now, increasing the ‘Fear of Missing Out’. Consumers therefore need to ask themselves if they are really missing out if they don’t buy it now? And is the discount worth spending the money today, or is there something else I should be spending it on or saving for?
- Sunk cost fallacy. Once consumers have started to invest, they often struggle to close out investments that prove unprofitable. On Black Friday, customers have already made the initial investment of getting up early, driving to the shops, finding parking and waiting in a queue, before they have purchased anything. Therefore, they will be inclined to buy more than they initially went for. It is important therefore to think about each purchase in isolation.
This year, however, there is also the added complication of the rising cost of living. Whilst this may deter some consumers from unnecessary, impulse purchases, some consumers are using Black Friday as an opportunity to stock up on expected future purchases, hedging against likely price rises over the coming months.
It is thought that more consumers will be looking for a combination of high quality but low price to make sure their purchases are affordable and can last for a long time. According to PwC, many consumers have closely monitored their favourite brands in anticipation that big-ticket electronics, more pricey winter wear or Christmas stocking fillers will be discounted. Consumers are also in search of bargains more than ever given rising inflation. This would suggest a shift in attitude, meaning consumers will be more aware of what they cannot afford rather than giving in to emotional temptation brought on by Black Friday.
Retailers are fully aware of the cognitive biases that surround Black Friday and take full advantage of them. ‘Cyber Monday’ follows right after Black Friday, giving retailers an extra opportunity for them to keep those ‘urgent’ or ‘unmissable’ sales going and increase their revenues.
Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. However, the way retailers approach it is growing increasingly mixed. Stores such as Amazon, Argos, Currys and John Lewis have started offering Black Friday deals much earlier in the month, leading some to refer to the event as ‘Black November’. Other stores, such as M&S and Next, didn’t take part at all this year.
Ultimately, Consumers can use insights from behavioural economics to empower them to make more rational decisions in such circumstances: ones that better align with their individual budgets. Nevertheless, the Black Friday sales mania can trigger our deepest emotional and cognitive responses that lead to unnecessary spending.
- Behavioural economics helps explain shopping mania on Black Friday
- Why Black Friday Is a Behavioral Economist’s Nightmare
- Consumer Behaviours & Motivations
- ‘I don’t need a new TV, but I’ll probably get one’
- Black Friday: when rationality takes a back seat
- Black Friday Meets the Winter of Discontent
- 1 in 4 consumers set to spend on Black Friday despite economic downturn
LinkedIn, Maura Feddersen (23/11/22)
Intelligencer, Kevin Roose (21/11/22)
Anthrolytics, Peter Dorrington and Kathryn Gilfoyle (2022)
BBC News, Lucy Hooker (26/11/22)
MyCustomer, Peter Dorrington (22/11/22)
Morningstar, James Gard (25/11/22)
PwC Press Release (18/11/22)
- Black Friday: what are the economics behind the sales?
The New Economy, Eric Mayefsky (21/11/22)
- Discuss what is meant by the term ‘rational consumer’. Is it a useful generalisation about the way consumers behave?
- Discuss what is meant by the term ‘rational producer’. Is it a useful generalisation about the way firms behave?
- What is cost–benefit analysis? What is the procedure used in conducting a cost–benefit analysis?
- In addition to scarcity and loss aversion and the sunk cost fallacy, are there any other reasons why consumers may not always act rationally?
- Are people likely to be more ‘rational’ about online Black Friday purchases than in-store ones? Explain.